Baltimore County officials will review school security policies after a man entered a bathroom in a Dundalk middle school during classroom hours Thursday and attempted to assault a seventh-grade boy.
The intruder, whose name was being withheld pending charges, apparently sneaked into Holabird Middle School, said Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the county school system. He had been stopped earlier in a hallway by a teacher and was directed to the administration office to check in, according to Herndon. The teacher saw him walk toward the main office, but Herndon said he did not believe the man registered with staff members.
The man then hid in a restroom and attacked the boy shortly before 8:30 a.m., said Lt. Robert McCullough, a Baltimore County police spokesman. The boy's screams alerted a staff member, who went into the restroom and thwarted the attempted assault before it could go further.
"The staff member heard what was going on," McCullough said. "The child was yelling."
The student was not injured, Herndon said. He said the staff member who heard the commotion had been in an office across a hallway from the boys' bathroom. A police officer assigned to the school was summoned and quickly took the man into custody, Herndon said. Minutes later, other officers arrived and took the suspect away.
"He is currently being charged," McCullough said at midafternoon, adding that no additional information about the suspect would be available until Friday.
It was not clear when the man — who may have been able to blend in with the middle school students because, Herndon said, he has a slight frame and is not tall — entered the school.
School officials said that Holabird, at 1701 Delvale Ave., keeps its doors locked, as do most schools.
Normally, Holabird students gather outside the building until a bell rings at 8:05 a.m., when they are let in. But because of Thursday morning's cold weather, staff members allowed students to go inside before the bell and stand in the lobby under the supervision of teachers and administrators.
Herndon said that while there are countywide policies on screening visitors, each school has flexibility to tailor rules to its individual needs. Visitors to Holabird must ring a buzzer to gain admittance. Once the door is opened by staff members in the main office, visitors — including parents — are required go to the office to sign in.
Herndon said he is sure the school system will review Thursday's events to see if policies should be changed. However, he said, "I am not sure how much more we could do differently. I think someone who is intent on getting in a building is going to work to elude the security measures in place."
Strangers have occasionally gotten into county schools, he said, but "this is an isolated and unusual incident, and that I think speaks well for the security we do have in place."
The incident happened quickly and within a small area of the school, Herndon said. Police officers remained in the building later in the day. The school sent an automated call and a letter home explaining to parents what happened.
Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for the county government, said that because the matter remains under investigation, officials would not comment about the adequacy of procedures for admittance to school buildings. "We're going to defer to the police and the school board," she said.
School board President Earnest Hines said the school board will look into the system's security policies. The school system "takes these things seriously," he said, but "you can't control all of them."
"It is not like we have armed security watching every doorway, and we aren't going to. … Schools are open places. We have to continue to look at our procedures and make sure that we are doing what we can," he said.
Kenneth Trump, an Ohio-based expert on school safety who conducts security assessments and advises school districts on emergency planning, said that while such intrusions are relatively rare, "one time is too many, especially when it's your school and your kid."
Trump said the actions of the boy and the school employee at Holabird appeared to prevent more serious harm. "The student alert enough to scream, the staff member who heard it, the police officer who got there quickly — all those are your strongest security assets," he said. "Ideally, we would hope that someone would spot that person. Good security is only as good as your weakest human link."
Control of access to school buildings "is one of the highest priorities and concerns for school administrators," Trump said. "But it's a double-edged sword. Administrators want visitors to their schools, but at the same time they want to keep those with ill intent out of the schools. That's a delicate balance."
In Baltimore City, visitors to schools are required to sign in upon arrival, show valid identification to obtain a pass, and secure permission to visit designated areas. Visitors must also sign out at the conclusion of their visits, according to regulations. The sign-in log includes a section for each visitor's full name, time of arrival, purpose of visit, where the visitor will be in the building, and time of departure.
Independent schools often follow similar — if less onerous — procedures. Barbara Blair, director of the Grace United Methodist Preschool in North Baltimore, which has approximately 100 students, said the small, intimate setting allows staff and teachers to know all the parents and designated guardians. An electronic code on the school's main door prevents casual entry.
"We really don't allow any strangers in the school area," Blair said. "If for any reason there is a visitor, we would accompany them while they are in the building. Visitors are not allowed to go anywhere in the school without a staff member."
If inspectors or workmen need to enter, Blair said, "I stay with them while they are in the school."
Schools around the state have had similar security breaches over the past few years.
In November 2005, a man carrying a gun and wearing a black ski mask and jacket tried to enter Arrowhead Elementary in Prince George's County. The school was placed on lockdown, and about 80 officers scoured a two-square-mile wooded area around the Upper Marlboro school for three hours without finding anyone.
In April 2007, eight Anne Arundel County schools with thousands of students were locked down for several hours after a man showed up at a high school in women's clothing and asked to see a female student. The man left North County High School in Ferndale after an officer stationed at the school learned that the girl was not expecting a visitor and alerted police. As a precaution, North County and four nearby elementary schools, two middle schools and an early education center were locked down.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica Green and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.