Basic safety measures lacking at some Alameda schools

Basic safety measures lacking at some Alameda schools

Michele Ellson

Photos by Michele Ellson. Click photo for complete slideshow.

Hundreds of the Alameda Unified School District’s youngest charges are on wide-open school campuses where some basic security measures aren’t being followed, visits to three of Alameda’s elementary schools showed this week.

“Sadly, it is not surprising at all,” school security expert Ken Trump said when presented with the results of the reporter’s visits.

Not one of the more than a dozen adults a reporter encountered during visits to Edison, Donald D. Lum and Ruby Bridges elementary schools offered more than a hello as the reporter wandered in and around the wide-open campuses for as long as 10 minutes. The reporter found doors to classrooms full of children unlocked, propped open or even wide open, while other security measures went untended or were outright ignored at the schools, which serve more than 1,500 students combined according to district enrollment figures.

Trump, whose Cleveland-based firm advises school districts all over the country, said that's the opposite of what should be occurring.

"Doors should be locked and unable to be opened from the outside. Visitors should be greeted, questioned, and engaged in a visitor sign-in and sign-out process," he said.

Built in 1942, Edison School offers visitors multiple points of entry, included an open entryway without a door or gate. A reporter was able to enter the school and walk into a play yard full of students without being questioned by any of the adults she passed; the door to a portable full of students the reporter tested was unlocked, while a room that appeared to be a staff room was propped open by a hole punch.

The reporter had a similar experience at Lum, where some of the hut-like classrooms front directly onto Otis Drive. A sign posted on 52-year-old campus said the school had surveillance cameras monitoring for illegal activity, but the reporter wasn’t questioned by anybody during the roughly 10 minutes she roamed on and around the campus. One of the classrooms was open, with students visible to a reporter walking across the campus.

Ruby Bridges offers visitors similarly easy access; a sign on the gate through which a reporter entered said it was to be closed at all times “for children’s safety.” Again, none of the adults a reporter encountered while on campus questioned her as she roamed the campus; blocks away, a pair of police officers had stopped to question a bedraggled-looking man wandering the neighborhood with a sleeping bag hung off his shoulders.

Trump said that new buildings can be designed with crime prevention elements that include single entrances with locked doors and buzzers; unlike Edison and Lum, administrative offices for Ruby Bridges, which opened in 2006, are located in the front of the school and are accessed through separate, exterior doors. Offices for the other two schools are inside each building, accessible after passing classrooms.

Schools officials said they’ve taken the right steps to keep schools safe, and they said they will continue to meet with police and talk with community members to refine their approach to safety. A meeting to discuss safety procedures is scheduled for later this month, they said.

“We are confident with the steps we’ve take inside the school district. We don’t want to cause mass hysteria and react,” Chief Business Officer Robert Shemwell said.

While not a comprehensive review of security at the Island's elementary schools - some of which may follow different safety protocols - the visits were intended to provide a snapshot of security measures in practice at the schools and also the relative ease of access. A reporter did not undertake similar reviews at any of Alameda's middle or high schools.

Copies of the district’s emergency plan and a school safety plan were not provided despite a reporter’s requests for those items. Administrators at the San Francisco Unified School District posted a link to their plans online hours after the shootings occurred on December 14.

Kirsten Zazo, the schools administrator charged with managing the district’s safety plans, said school staff is supposed to be identifying people who shouldn’t be on campus. And she said classrooms that face out toward the public should be locked at all times, a policy that’s followed “at most school sites.”

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to ask the question, ‘Why are you on campus and where are you supposed to be? Welcome to our campus. Who are you and how can I help you get there?’” Zazo said.

She said interior classroom doors don’t need to be locked, though she said a discussion about that policy will take place at the safety meeting being held the end of this month; that meeting will also include a school-by-school review of potential vulnerabilities, Shemwell said.

Zazo said that fire codes complicate their ability to lock some schools’ exterior gates. State fire code permits fences and gates on school grounds to be locked, though it requires schools to provide enough space to get students out safely. State education code requires the gates to be accessible to public safety.

Zazo and Shemwell said the district doesn’t want to overreact to the Newtown shootings and that they need to consider safety measures for the long term. They said the district is trying to strike the right balance between making campuses safe and making them welcoming places for students and the communities they are integrated into.

“Your ability to walk on the campus is very much a part of the culture we live in and expect in Alameda,” Shemwell said.

Zazo said that prior to the shootings, some school districts had begun removing fences and other security measures because they detracted from school security, rather than improving it.

“We could make all of our school campuses little tiny prisons with fences all around them, an extreme degree of lockdown. It is a balance that the community has to weigh in and talk about,” said Shemwell.

Shemwell noted that a shooter was able to get into Sandy Hook Elementary School despite the fact that the school’s exterior doors were locked and that it had a secure entry system. Security experts told The Alamedan that those safety enhancements, while not preventing the massacre, probably saved lives.

“In that case, the school was completely locked down, and there was surveillance around the site. It’s just a matter of, how prepared are you for those particular situations,” Shemwell said.

He said the district is focusing efforts on building relationships with students to prevent and gain information about potential incidents, and that its training and drills – including a 2011 “active shooter” drill at Alameda High School that included city and county law enforcement, district staff and hundreds of students – far exceed what other school districts are doing.

“Handfuls of (districts) that go to that degree. Here in Alameda, we did go to that degree. We’re able to learn and prepare for and pass along that info,” Shemwell said.

HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY

The Alamedan visited three school campuses to assess security at the schools. Schools were selected in an effort to represent schools in different geographic areas of Alameda and also schools of different ages. A reporter spent between five and 10 minutes on each campus during a recent school day, spending additional time to review the physical plant of the campuses spread across two visits. The Alamedan's review was not intended to be a comprehensive review of security at Alameda schools, but to provide a snapshot of security at some schools.

Related: Connecticut shootings restart school safety discussion

Comments

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Mon, Jan 14, 2013

I wonder if the response from school officials would have been different if the bedraggled-looking man with the sleeping bag had entered school grounds?

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Jan 14, 2013

Hey Steve: I was thinking about that and remembered some pieces I worked on after 9/11 for which I interviewed a former security expert for Israel's El Al airline. His take was that profiling people based on how they look is not particularly effective, and that focusing on people's behavior was more so.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Mon, Jan 14, 2013

Here's an article about Israeli airport security.

http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/airport-security-solution-tsa-profile-trave...

School officials did not likely see you as a threat. Perhaps they thought that you were the mom of one of the students. At minimum, you should have been stopped and questioned.

Submitted by Michele Kuttner on Mon, Jan 14, 2013

As an Alameda parent and teacher I found this report interesting but not shocking or upsetting for a couple of reasons. First, It doesn't surprise me that no one questioned her. We live in an open, safe community that is blessed to have schools built next to parks, baseball fields and nestled in neighborhoods. I would hate for this to change. We also have schools with lots of involved parents who come on and off campus and thank goodness for that. Teachers at my school are often reminded to remind parents to sign in & get a volunteer sticker when on campus. We are pretty good about greeting adults without a sticker but probably could be better. Your report is a good reminder about why this is important. Second, I do not believe all of our classroom doors should remain locked and closed at all times. Poor Sandy Hook Elem. was more secure than any school I've ever known. I do not believe the near constant interruption in instruction that would be required to let kids/adults in and out of the classroom justifies the false sense of security it might give us.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Jan 14, 2013

Thanks, Michele. Appreciate the input.

Submitted by Neal_J on Tue, Jan 15, 2013

Michelle:

While I generally respect and enjoy your work, I must question why you would publicize specific security lapses at specific elementary schools (in an article available via The Alamedan blog and, more broadly, via SFGate.com)?

Arguably, that action subjects kids at those schools to more potential danger than the alleged security lapses themselves. That, in my judgment, is irresponsible reporting. I'd respectfully ask that you consider a rewrite.

Neal

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Jan 15, 2013

Hi Neal,

Thanks for your comment. The goal of these pieces is to get a handle on what can and should be done to protect students and staff at Alameda's schools and to examine whether those things are actually being put into day-to-day practice. One of the key considerations I had in writing them was whether I would be putting information out into the public domain that wouldn't otherwise be easily obtainable by someone who might use it to harm students or staff. So in writing the pieces I steered clear of discussing, for example, specific security protocols that generally aren't in the public domain and instead talked about things like the physical plant of schools and security practices at the schools, which are important pieces of this puzzle and information that anyone could gather regardless of whether I put that information in a story.

Ultimately, the point of this piece is to make people aware of the security situation at local schools so that they have the opportunity to talk about whether they're comfortable with the level of security or if more needs to be done to ensure that everyone is safe - something that as a media outlet I think we have a responsibility to do. I think the piece accomplishes this goal without offering information someone could not get otherwise.

All that said, I'm happy to discuss this with you further, so feel free to e-mail me at michele@thealamedan.org.

Submitted by Al Wright on Tue, Jan 15, 2013

Most important take-away from the first article in this series, "Connecticut shootings restart school safety discussion": APD Officer Hank Morton said, "But if you have somebody with the intent to get in, they’ll get in. . .” Look at most any of our schools at the beginning of the school day or the end of the day, when students and parents are crowded out front of the school looking for and waiting for each other. A shooter could be in the middle of that crowd and do extensive damage before the police could arrive, and never enter the campus at all. Or, if the shooter is from the neighborhood, he (usually a 'he', isn't it?), could ask any kid in the neighborhood, "Hey Jimmy, when is your Holiday Program," or "When is graduation," then walk onto campus with all the other parents and family attending the event. At any lunch time at any school, a kid could have a handgun and extra clips in a pizza box and head into the cafeteria. If stopped he could just say, "I'm supposed to bring this to Ms. Jones class for a little party". If a staff person did actually stop him to question him, that could be his first victim, and he could be inside the cafeteria inside of 15 or 20 seconds (they are mostly located up toward the front of our schools, right?) wreaking havoc. So, as the officer said, if someone wants to get in, they can, and probably kill or injure 20 people before the police can show up. The rest of this info about all the precautions and cooperation and live drills is just a smoke screen. Sorry for the doom and gloom, but it could happen anywhere, even in a security-conscious school like Newton. The good news I guess is that the odds of an event like that happening at any particular school in the country are pretty slim.

Submitted by marian on Thu, Jan 17, 2013

Schools are usually shot up by someone who was a student there. Workplaces are usually shot up by former or current employees. The next shooting will probably be done by someone who already owns guns, has passed a background check, & has no history of mental illness.

Add new comment

Text Format

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.