The Baltimore Sun Media Group sent reporters and videographers to several local schools to get a sense of security procedures throughout our coverage area. (Baltimore Sun video)
If visitors go to public schools in the Baltimore region, they will more often than not encounter a video-and-buzzer system to gain entrance.
Whether they actually converse with a staff member and are asked to identify themselves before getting in the front door is another question altogether.
That was the experience of Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters who were deployed Monday to a sampling of 18 schools within the region to experience security protocols in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that killed 17 people. Local journalists went to elementary, middle and high schools in the city and surrounding counties Monday to determine whether the systems’ protocols match the reality.
The Baltimore Sun Media Group is investigating how area schools handle security. We sent 18 reporters and several photographers to schools around the Baltimore area — reporting at three representative schools in all the districts in and around Baltimore. Here's what we learned.
Security measures, surveillance and signage varied in the different jurisdictions, and in some cases from school to school within each district. At least one school in each jurisdiction — the city and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties — allowed a reporter inside without requiring verbal identification before entering.
Some schools did not ask for a driver’s license at the front desk. A few had unlocked front doors.
Most of the Sun journalists were allowed inside the schools they visited, directed to the administrative offices, and referred to the respective school systems’ communications personnel.
At Anne Arundel’s Brooklyn Park Middle School, a visitor was asked for identification and to state their business before being buzzed in. Yet at Annapolis Elementary School, in the same district, a reporter wasn’t asked for his name before being allowed in.
The same held true with at least one school in each of the surveyed school systems. In some cases, staff members let in the journalists, all of whom wore press badges. Other times, they were turned away without being allowed into the building.
Doyle Batten, supervisor of school security for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said there is a balance to be struck: Schools aren’t prisons, and they should be both safe and welcoming. If a person doesn’t go to the office after being buzzed in, the proper protocol is for an employee to politely ask how they can be helped, he said.
That need to balance safety and a welcoming environment was a note sounded by representatives of many of the districts.
Frederick Douglass High School, near Mondawmin Mall in the city, had a door propped-open at the student entrance. But as journalists approached it, the principal called them over to the main entrance nearby, holding the door for the reporter and photographer.
Anne Fullerton, a spokeswoman for Baltimore City Schools, said schools need to strike a balance between keeping out threats and allowing in visitors.
“We need our schools to be welcoming to the school community,” she said. “We have parents and volunteers and partners who are in our building and we carefully track all of them.”
Security means inconvenience at times.
Edward A. Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety
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Police patrol cars sat parked outside some of the schools, including Northwest Academy of Health and Sciences, the former Old Court Middle School in Baltimore County. But there, too, journalists were allowed in without stating their names.
Spokespeople for most of the Baltimore-area public school systems discussed the need for a balance between maintaining a secure atmosphere, while also keeping schools practical and conducive to the needs of students, faculty, staff and visitors.
Complacency is one of the biggest obstacles to keeping schools safe, said Edward A. Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety, which provides security support and guidance to the state’s 24 school systems.
“Security means inconvenience at times,” he said.
All schools in Maryland are required by law to have security plans in place and regularly undergo a variety of drills, including shelter-in-place, fire and weather scenarios, he said.
The Sun’s reporting highlighted inconsistencies among the different school districts’ day-to-day security measures, Clarke said. Administrators in every district likely will be reviewing their protocols to address those inconsistencies, he said.
“Your findings present a welcome opportunity to address those concerns, and it’s all about continuous improvement,” he said. “We’re all human. Our primary mission needs to be, on a day-to-day basis, the safety and security of our students.”
A review of the policies at local jurisdictions in Baltimore and its surrounding counties shows some variations in how safety protocols are executed.
Because schools vary widely by size and location, no single, cookie-cutter solution has been developed for protecting them, said Ken Trump, a national school safety expert and consultant based in Cleveland.
Still, in trying to do so, school systems often invest disproportionately in security devices such as surveillance cameras, but don’t spend adequate time training school staff on safety protocols and constantly drilling for various scenarios, he said.
When incidents occur, he said, “across the board, they almost all involve alleged failures of people and procedures, not security products and hardware.”
“Often the real issue is what’s behind that entranceway, with your people, their training, their planning and their day-to-day practice,” said Trump, who is not related to the president. “It is very common to find disconnects between what’s on paper in their policies and what’s actually in practice.”
He generally advises school administrators to regularly address the issue in staff meetings and parent letters, update policies and procedures, and — most of all — strive to create an environment where students feel comfortable reporting issues to adults.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters David Anderson, Jessica Anderson, Bob Blubaugh, Margarita Cambest, Wayne Carter, Emily Chappell, Craig Clary, E.B. Furgurson III, Ted Hendricks, Brent Kennedy, Mary Carole McCauley, Danielle Ohl, Rachael Pacella, Tim Schwartz, Libby Solomon, Kyle Stackpole and Allan Vought contributed to this story.