Roslyn Road Elementary in Barrington is buttoned down about as tightly as a school can be these days, with a video surveillance system, buzzer-equipped doors and a driver's license scanner that checks visitors against a sex offender database.

Even with all that technology, though, the school's most important security feature might be Denise Harwood.

She has been an administrative assistant at Roslyn Road for 17 years, long enough to remember when outside doors remained unlocked during the day. Today, she watches a video monitor to decide whether visitors can come through the front door, then gives them another once-over in the office before allowing them to access the rest of the school.

"Part of the office staff's job is to be the first person a parent or visitor meets," she said. "You always try to welcome everybody warmly, but if you have any suspicion at all that somebody shouldn't be here, you don't let them go into the building."

While school security became considerably more robust following 1999's Columbine High School massacre and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, December's horrifying shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary pushed administrators to look for even more safeguards. Schools have added new layers of security doors, video cameras and other building features meant to ward off intruders.

But last week's incident in Georgia, in which school bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff coolly persuaded an invading gunman to lay down his rifle, illustrated the vital role the front office staff can play in school security. They serve as the gatekeepers and first line of defense in a crisis, administrators say, duties that are as important as any physical deterrent.

"I don't think anything can replace common sense and just having some good intuition," said Candice Kehoe, principal of Libertyville's Butterfield School.

Butterfield's safety net extends to the playground, where adult supervisors are told to position themselves between the children and a major street that runs past the school. Visitors must enter a security vestibule and identify themselves on a video camera before they're allowed to enter.

It's much the same drill at Elmhurst's Jackson Elementary School, where lead secretary Jacki Lawrence is the one to decide whether to admit someone. If there's any doubt, she said, she'll walk to the front door to quiz the visitor in person.

Getting through the door is just the first step. Visitors then must head to the front office, where Lawrence runs their identification through a database that turns her entire computer screen red if someone is flagged as a potential problem.

"You can't miss it — it says 'sex offender alert,'" Lawrence said. "I just have to be extremely careful that, one, I'm not letting somebody in that I shouldn't let in, and two, I don't want to put the alert out for somebody that's a totally innocent person."

So far, the alerts, which automatically contact 911 unless she cancels them, have been false alarms, she said. But the screening is a reminder of how her job has changed in recent years.

"When I first started here, if a parent would say, 'Hey, I'm going to put this in my child's locker,' I'd say 'OK, go ahead,'" she said. "Now there's none of that."

The ever-present cloak of suspicion might feel like an annoyance to some parents, but Trish Torres, attendance secretary at Boulder Hill Elementary in Montgomery, said she has heard little carping since her school adopted its own screening procedures.

"It's been a learning experience for everyone and it's a little time-consuming, but it's nice and I think the parents appreciate that extra special step of security," she said.

Laura Ries Dralle, who has two children in Plainfield District 202 schools, said most parents are glad to have safety measures that might have seemed paranoid decades ago. The mother of a high school freshman and a seventh-grader, she has been an active member of parent-teacher organizations and has never heard complaints about security changes.

"I think this is the norm for this generation of kids," she said. "My daughter and son have grown up with this, just like we grew up with tornado drills. They are used to lockdown drills."

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said security depends on ensuring that the staff is protected as well as the students. Some schools have installed "panic buttons" in their offices to automatically alert police in case of emergencies, but District 202 has gone a bit further.

It has outfitted its 30 schools with yellow "emergency stations," similar to fire alarms, that are supposed to be triggered whenever someone spots an apparent intruder. The alarms contact authorities and sound an ear-piercing shriek throughout the building.

Some staff, including those who head outside with children for recess or physical education, carry remote controls on lanyards that can also set off the warning. Ed Boswell, principal of Aux Sable Middle School in Joliet, said the devices, along with more traditional panic buttons, create extra layers of protection.

"If you have to reach for a phone on a countertop, that's not the same as if you're able to hit a button underneath a desk and hide," he said.

Barbara Nall, who has been a secretary at Roselle's Nerge Elementary since 1990, said the vast majority of visits at her school are straightforward. But every school crisis that erupts on the news highlights the importance of her role, she said.

"If anything it just makes those of us in front offices a little more diligent, maybe a little more aware when people do come to the building," she said. "But I'm not really scared. I think if you live in fear, doesn't the bad guy win?"

jkeilman@tribune.com

voritz@tribune.com

agrimm@tribune.com