At Githens Middle School, the smell of paint nearly overwhelmed visitors this week as they entered the school.
One parent, on campus to enroll her child for the upcoming school year, walked briskly through a door left slightly ajar by working painters and walked hurriedly past Assistant Principal Greg Jones. Once the parent realized she didn’t know where to go, she slowed, turned and asked for directions.
But had the parent wanted to, she could have gone to any part of the school after walking through the front door.
That’s the kind of unfettered access Durham Public Schools hopes to prevent by installing front door security upgrades at several schools this summer.
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The vestibule upgrades, as they are called, involve constructing a second set of doors right after the first set to steer visitors to the front office. There, they’’ll be checked in before they are released into the school. During most of the school day, both sets of doors will be locked.
“After the normal rush of kids in the morning and afternoon, the school can in essence lock down the front door and it [the vestibule] sort of channels everybody through the main office for checking in,” said John Long, executive director of construction and capital planning. “We want our schools more than anything to be welcoming and warm, but we also want to help provide a safe environment for our kids. We feel the vestibules provide both of those things.”
Similar improvements are being made at 17 schools throughout the district. Another 34 schools are scheduled for upgrades next summer. Schools are also getting camera upgrades and other things that district officials declined to talk about so as not to tip off intruders.
“The security upgrades are a welcome addition,” said Jones. “I don’t think you can do too much to ensure student safety.”
DPS will spend nearly $600,000 in 2016 bond money on entrance improvements this summer and nearly $2 million over the next two summers, according to the district’s 2016 bond project schedule.
Plans also call for $550,.000 in camera upgrades this year and $330,000 next year. DPS spent nearly $220,000 on security camera upgrades last year.
“Basically, all schools are being touched,” Long said. “We just couldn’t do them all this summer.”
Tina Ingram, director of security for DPS, said the security upgrades aren’t in response to incidents of school violence, the most recent and notable of which occurred on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Fla. A student opened fire on classmates and teachers, killing 17.
“It will be standard for DPS,” Ingram said of the new entrances. “We want to make sure there’s a balance between being welcoming but also securing the building.”
Long can remember a time when main offices were centrally located in schools instead of near the front door. Visitors had to walk half the length of the school to get to the office.
“It’s a different world today,” Long said. “ Today, you can’t imagine doing that.”
Other area school districts have also focused on safety and security over the summer.
Orange County Schools have installed card-access systems at some schools, along with security camera upgrades.
Meanwhile, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools developed a “comprehensive school safety training session” that will be used to train staffs at all schools. The district has also contracted with Safe Havens, a national security safety expert, to update its Emergency Operations Plan during the coming school year.