- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Today, D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous is expected to introduce legislation that would turn the security of public schools over to the Metropolitan Police Department, whose chief is scheduled today to release his own plan. The proposals follow the Feb. 2 shooting inside Ballou High School that left one student dead and another injured, and a separate incident last week in which two students tried to hide a handgun outside another school. Police suspect the gun used in the Ballou shooting was smuggled through one of scores of unguarded doors — a highly likely scenario considering Ballou has 140 doors that lead outdoors. Still, any reasonable overhaul of school security must look beyond law-enforcement concerns.

Most of the city’s junior high and high schools were built with scores of doors. As Police Chief Chuck Ramsey said, it would be nearly impossible to deploy enough responsible personnel to man each door at all times during school hours. We agree with his assessment for several reasons, the least of which is that its costs would be prohibitive. On the other hand, we are concerned that the obvious need to tighten school security also be weighed, somewhat, against the need to ensure safety, for example, in the case of a serious fire or other emergency.

In the rush to appease outraged parents, lawmakers and policy-makers are considering several changes to make schools more secure. Those measures include additional metal detectors and electronic surveillance devices, boosting school personnel and turning the school system’s security contract over to the police department. There are federal and local funds available for such projects.

But a balance must be struck. While there is considerable discussion about this change or that change, little has been said regarding what role, if any, fire officials will play in the deliberations. Surely, many of the doors leading inside and out of schools can be locked in the name of safety and security. But which ones? And, after they are locked, will school staff and students be aware of the “new” evacuation plan? Indeed, are they aware of current evacuation plans? The questions must be posed and the answers heard in consultation with fire officials.

D.C. schools have long needed a joint safety and security plan that goes beyond metal detectors and clearly marked emergency exits. The congressionally created control board tried to establish such a plan in the mid-1990s. But it was overwhelmed by a lawsuit stemming from fire-code violations and political rhetoric that claimed the board was trying to takeover the school system. At the time, school officials did not want to concede their line of authority. Now, after the Ballou shooting and a handful of other tragedies, the wake-up call is seemingly being heeded. We hope D.C. officials get it right this time.

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