Front office workers crucial to school security, experts say

In the last decade, metro Atlanta schools have invested tens of millions of dollars on cameras, fencing, metal locks and police officers to enhance school security.

But many people believe nobody plays a larger role in keeping kids safe from intruders today than registrars, bookkeepers and secretaries like Tootie Berniard, an upbeat and unassuming 5-foot-4-inch clerk and Hurricane Katrina survivor.

At Marietta Sixth Grade Academy, Berniard monitors the school’s 99 security cameras, determines who is allowed to enter the school and controls the school’s locks. Administrators recently installed a panic button near her desk that notifies police in the case of an emergency. That’s on top of monitoring late, sick and unruly children who have been sent to the office and making sure students are going home with the right folks.

“She’s our first line of defense,” said Gabe Carmona, the school’s principal.

Architectural alterations have thrust Georgia schools’ secretaries, bookkeepers and clerks into central security roles and now they’re recieving special training.

When Michael Brandon Hill, a mentally ill man off his medication, strolled into Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy last month with a hidden semi-automatic rifle and enough bullets to take out more than half of the school’s 800 students, it was Antoinette Tuff, a religious, faith-tested bookkeeper who first confronted him.

“It’s gonna be all right, sweetie,” she told the gunman, as heard in a 911 tape. “I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you.”

Shots were fired but nobody was injured. Hill is being held without bond and faces several charges.

In 2002, administrators at Marietta Sixth Grade Academy renovated their 44-year-old school and placed just feet from the double-entrance doorway an office for their clerk with wide windows and a front desk angled toward the school’s parking lot.

Visitors at the Marietta school used to have to wander the school’s hallways to check in. Now they’re met immediately upon entry by Berniard.

It’s a design several schools across Georgia have adopted since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

While administrative offices were once placed in the middle of schools to be “at the center of activity,” they’re now placed at the front to create a barrier physical barrier to the rest of the school.

“When you’re dealing with an active shooter scenario, architects are trying to add seconds to the scenario,” said Irene Nigaglioni, the chair of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. The organization advises its members to build front entrance vestibules, large noticeable entrances and hallways free of dark corners for intruders to hide.

Because of their location, front office workers must be flexible and alert, said Danielle Graham, a school safety coordinator with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Graham travels the state training front office workers on how to determine if someone has a weapon and whether a school should go on lockdown or evacuate.

They’re often the ones to field bomb threats and confront irate parents. They’re advised to have a working familiarity with the school’s security plan and have handy an emergency tool kit.

“I stick to my rules,” said Berniard, before checking the identification of a subsitute teacher. “Everything is in place here to help me keep kids safe.”

School officials admit front office workers, who can make as little as $28,000 are tasked with a lot. To relieve them of some of the duties, Gwinnett has employed a fleet of employees to sit at special desks situated at their schools’ front entrances. Some Cobb parents have volunteered to sit at schools’ front doors on rotating shifts.

And districts are making efforts to train everyone in the school on school security.

“If you’re an employee, it’s your responsibility to be vigilant and aware of what’s going on,” said Ron Storey, the executive director of Cobb School District’s department of public safety. “This day and time I don’t see how they can’t.”

Bookeepers and secretaries often set the tone of the school.

“Tootie is positive, happy, calm and pleasant,” Carmona said. “She’s our school’s first impression. She’s critical. She starts off the day for our students.”