Visitors to Laurel Woods Elementary School have noticed something different recently as they prepared to enter the front door — they need permission.
The North Laurel school was one of many Howard County elementary schools to have a new buzzer system installed during the summer. Visitors must push a buzzer at the front door and identify themselves before being allowed into the building. Then, they must sign in at the front office before proceeding farther. Office staff monitor 16 camera feeds, including one above the main entrance so they can see who is buzzing in.
It's a security measure recommended by the Joint Task Force on School Safety established days after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left more than two dozen dead and shocked educational institutions across the country.
"It's not that people aren't welcome; it's just that there has to be accountability for knowing who is in the building at any given time," said Laurel Woods Principal Susan Brown. "Everyone gets it. Parents want to know that their children are safe in our school. We have a huge responsibility to keep every child in this building safe."
Buzzer systems have become a common sight at many of the 41 county elementary schools. New schools are built with the buzzer systems and double-door vestibules that direct visitors directly into the front office, and older schools that have gone through renovations now have those safety features as well. Last year, 21 elementary schools were without buzzer systems, but now most of the elementary schools have the system used at Laurel Woods.
Ken Roey, the school system's chief facilities officer, said the 13 elementary schools still without a buzzer system will have them within two months.
Brown said security protocols at Laurel Woods always included signing into the front office, but "there were times we had to jump out of our seat and bring people who walked by back to sign in.
"Now, it's no different than if you're at the airport," she said. "The building is not closed off — you just have to go through a checkpoint and once you're in, you're fine and everything's normal. Everything's the same. Parents want to walk their kids into their classrooms, and that's great, they can still do that. We just have them sign in first."
Seeing the buzzer system installed at Laurel Woods was cause for excitement and relief, said kindergarten team leader Stephanie Geddie.
"My children's school in Anne Arundel County has the buzzer, and it gives me a great sense of a security," she said. "Now, being in an environment where we have access to that for our students, I love it. I feel much more secure in the building."
The buzzer systems were the first, most immediate step the Howard County Public School System took to implement the safety task force's recommendations. After the elementary schools are outfitted with buzzer systems, middle schools will be next. Currently, three of the county's 19 middle schools have buzzer systems.
The work, however, doesn't stop there, Roey said. Next summer, the county will construct partitions to further secure the open pod classrooms common in schools built between six and 25 years ago, Roey said.
"We're going back into those schools and, while we're not partitioning every wall, we'll have enough secured areas so we can get the kids into a lockdown situation that works," he said.
During some renovations and additions, the main office has been reconfigured to be in front of the building, Roey said. That was the case at Thunder Hill Elementary in 2012, and Laurel Woods is getting a new vestibule next summer as part of a renovation and addition. It's more complicated, Roey said, when a school has its main office in the center of the building, or even on the second floor as Burleigh Manor and Patuxent Valley middle schools do. In those cases, he said, "we have to live with" a buzzer system and vigilantly monitored camera feeds until major renovations come due.
The work to keep school buildings safe is never really done, but, rather, evolves, Roey said.
"Ten years ago we were never worried about this," he said. "Now, it's mandatory that with every renovation, we think of features to improve safety. As threats evolve and we come up with different ideas to prevent those threats, things will change.
While there are no plans to install buzzer systems at the 12 county high schools, those schools have their own security measures in place. Each high school has an armed school resource officer, and three SROs split time among six middle schools: Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills, Lake Elkhorn, Patuxent Valley and Mayfield Woods.