Task force concerned about inconsistent Wake school security practices

khui@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2013 

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Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

TRAVIS LONG — 2011 News & Observer file photo Buy Photo

— Wake County’s schools have a hodgepodge of security measures, the majority lacking security officers or a computerized system for managing visitors and a large minority having few or no surveillance cameras and outdated locking systems.

That was the picture that Wake school security staff laid out Thursday to members of a new school district task force at its first meeting to review school security policies. The lack of consistency surprised task force members.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, co-chair of the task force. “We’ve got a lot of inconsistencies.”

School security has been on people’s minds since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

One response by school board chairman Keith Sutton was to form a school safety task force co-chaired by Harrison and retired Raleigh Police Capt. Al White.

The 20-member committee, consisting of school employees, community members and current and retired law enforcement and security personnel will meet regularly to develop recommendations for the school board over the next three months.

School officials are trying to address many of those issues with an $18.1 million security proposal that they hope to include in the next school construction bond referendum. Russ Smith, the school district’s senior director of security, said he wanted to provide the task force with an overview of the current security situation.

“It’s a mish-mash,” Smith said in an interview. “It’s an unlevel playing field. That’s why we’re trying to address it in the bond.”

Of Wake’s 169 schools, 111 don’t have either a school resource officer – an armed law enforcement officer – or a private security officer. Most are elementary schools.

In January, the school board put on hold a proposal to hire and place an unarmed security officer at every elementary school. Some critics argued Wake should go further and place armed guards, while others said even unarmed officers would militarize schools.

In terms of monitoring visitors, Smith said only 27 schools have the Lobby Guard system which can be networked to a central place to let them know if a registered sex offender or a person who has been barred from visiting a school is trying to gain entry.

All Wake County elementary schools have an electronic key locking system, but Smith said the majority of those schools use a 10- to 15-year-old system that is “not reliable” and “not very good.”

Most middle schools and high schools don’t have an electronic locking system.

Newer schools have surveillance cameras, but Smith said 21 older elementary schools do not have cameras and several older schools only have a few.

Smith said some school PTAs have been able to raise money to buy their schools more cameras and other security features.

“The best way we can say it is we have some haves and have nots,” he said.

Smith said there’s no standard policy on camera systems, locking systems or visitor management

By the end of the meeting, task force members and school leaders said Smith’s report points out the need to develop uniform security standards.

“Right now we’ve got so many different systems,” Harrison said. “I was amazed at what I heard today.”

Sutton, the school board chairman, said centralizing security might be necessary. He said they want to find a balance to make sure schools are safe without turning them into fortresses.

“We may want to have a standard at all schools for the number of cameras or resource officers they might have,” he said.

The $18.1 million proposal unveiled earlier this week would pay for more surveillance cameras, installing electronic locking systems at all schools, placing an entrance buzzer at elementary schools and installing at every school a networked visitor registration system and a networked public address system.

Despite the concerns raised Thursday, Smith said parents shouldn’t be worried.

“I feel all of our schools are safe,” he said. “But there’s room for improvement.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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