School security’s a frustrating challenge

School districts can employ police, install security systems and be ever vigilant, but, as a gunman demonstrated in DeKalb County Tuesday afternoon, schools are not fortresses.

Once it was clear that no one had been injured at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, one fundamental question rose to the top: How did the 20-year-old with an assault rifle get through the school’s new buzz-in security system?

Police say they think Michael Brandon Hill slipped in through a door that had been opened by someone ahead of him with a key card.

DeKalb, like many school systems, does not have police officers stationed in elementary schools, Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond said.

The incident underscored for safety directors at metro Atlanta school systems just how difficult it is to secure a campus that is open to teachers and maintenance workers and hundreds of students and their parents and relatives.

In the hours after Tuesday’s incident, parents were milling about a parking lot a half mile away, waiting to collect their children. One of them, Chimere Conner, suspected human error. “They have a buzz-in system but they don’t ask for ID,” said Cannon, whose 9-year-old son attends the school. “They just buzz everyone in.”

Ron Storey, the director of public safety in Cobb County, said his district recently finished installing similar buzz-in systems at all elementary schools, but he said they are no guarantee of safety.

Even if the system works flawlessly and there is no human error, many schools are enclosed by glass doors that can easily be breached, he said.

“It’s not a foolproof system,” Storey said. “It’s like having an alarm on your house. It’s just a deterrent.”

Humans can be a weak link in security systems, Storey said. The Cobb buzz-in systems come with voice and video equipment, so those manning the doors can see who wants access. But those in the school office are used to frequent visits by harmless parents, and may be less suspicious than a trained officer, he said.

“Most schools are so large it’s hard to secure all the doors unless you have participation from all the faculty and the staff,” said Clarence Cox, the chief of the new in-house police department at the Clayton County School District.

Like districts everywhere, Clayton has been taking security even more seriously since the massacre of children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., late last year.

Clayton schools were previously secured by the county sheriff’s department, but the district just hired more than three dozen officers of its own to walk the hallways.

Forsyth County installed electronic locks at all elementary schools. Officials there declined to comment for this article, but previously said they convened a task force of local law enforcement after Newtown to study school security. They identified several areas for improvement, but with financing limited decided to focus first on securing all elementary schools.

Tuesday’s incident ended after officers from multiple jurisdictions swarmed the McNair campus.

Lance LoRusso, a former Cobb County policeman and author who watched the action unfold on television, was impressed with the police response. Now a lawyer who recently penned a book titled “When Cops Kill: The Aftermath of a Critical Incident,” LoRusso said the TV images showed signs of a proper response: The street outside the school was clogged with vehicles from multiple police agencies and from the fire department. It’s the kind of heavy-handed tactic that many law enforcement agencies started training for after the 1999 murders at Columbine High in Colorado, he said. The idea is that a strong and immediate show of force will encourage a quick surrender.

“It looks like the law enforcement response by all accounts was immediate,” LoRusso said. “The number one rule with active shooters now is do not give them time to walk around.”

Georgia Superintendent John Barge had no comment Tuesday, but Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza noted what Barge has said after gun-related incidents in the past: Schools need trained cops. They are a “valuable asset for improving school climate and staff morale,” Barge has said.

Many systems, though, cannot afford to put an officer in every building, especially after years of budget cuts that have caused crowded classrooms and shorter school calendars. Typically, officers are headquartered at high schools and maybe middle schools, and occasionally patrol elementary schools.

That’s why some people advocate more guns in schools.

After Newtown, school officials in Arkansas pushed to arm more school employees, especially teachers. Employees had been bringing guns to schools there for years, but the new push in some districts would have increased the numbers. That plan is on hold now that the state’s attorney general has decided it’s illegal.

Ronald Stephens, who has testified several times before Congress about school violence, said there is no way to completely lock down a school.

“If someone is intent on getting into a school with a gun, they’ll figure out a way,” said Stephens, a former teacher who is the director of the National School Safety Center in California. Stephens said he thinks it is unwise to flood schools with guns, and said it’s best to leave security to the professionals.

Even an armed officer can’t always stop a crime from occurring, he said. He recalled a conversation with a school police officer in California who had to watch one boy shoot another to death without pulling the trigger of her own gun.

“The problem was,” Stephens said, “there were seven kids standing behind the student.”

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