- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Security cameras in D.C. public schools often do not work, school doors are routinely left unlocked, and some of the school system’s private security guards are inexperienced and fraternize with students who they are hired to protect, according to a report released yesterday by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

“At present, trespassers have relatively easy access to many District schools, student truancy continues, and concealed weapons can often be brought inside schools undetected,” according to the report issued by interim Inspector General Austin A. Andersen.

The findings contrast sharply with comments made by school administrators, who last week expressed confidence that tough security measures would prevent a school siege such as the one in Beslan, Russia, where at least 327 hostages — many of them children — were killed earlier this month.

Despite a spate of school violence in recent years, including the fatal shooting of a student inside Ballou High School in February, the report also found that D.C. school administrators have not updated their security strategy in nearly 10 years.

The school system’s “Zero Tolerance Plan,” which was enacted in 1995, contains a series of initiatives that were never implemented, the report indicates.

In a Sept. 3 letter, interim D.C. Schools Superintendent Robert C. Rice told Mr. Andersen that the school system is forming a task force to study the problems highlighted in the report.

Mr. Rice also said school officials will replace broken security cameras, work with the D.C. Fire Department to secure unlocked or unguarded entrances and ask police to help evaluate security guard staffing levels.

The 24-page inspector general’s report was based on a survey of 15 city public schools that investigators visited between the last quarter of the 2002-03 school year and the middle of the 2003-04 school year. The investigation revealed “serious security weaknesses” at all 15 schools.

The most common problems focused on unlocked or unguarded entrance doors, insufficient or inoperable surveillance equipment and unsatisfactory security guard performance.

“Several principals believed that some of the [guards] … were too young and inexperienced for a high school setting and engaged in excessive fraternization with students,” the report states.

In one case, administrators at Coolidge Senior High School said that some guards do not follow their orders and that others “exhibit disorderly conduct by using profanity in the presence of students,” the report concludes.

A spokeswoman for the school system’s private security contractor, Watkins Security of D.C. Inc., said yesterday that D.C. school administrators never complained about the company’s security guards.

“There has not been one complaint that our guards have been fraternizing with the students,” said Donna Henry, a spokeswoman for Watkins. “That is something we go to great lengths to make sure doesn’t happen. If it does happen and it’s brought to our attention, that person will be dealt with.”

A PTA official had complained about the security guards fraternizing with students, but Watkins had said the complaints involved guards who worked for a previous security contractor, not Watkins.

The report also found that many schools do not have enough guards, or school resource officers. In many cases, each school resource officer is responsible for hundreds of students.

Ms. Henry said the school system, not Watkins, decides how many of the hundreds of private security guards to post at each school.

“We go by our contract,” she said. “If they say three [guards] at a particular school, then that’s what we go by.”

In addition, the report faulted the school system for having numerous open or unguarded entrance doors at the schools.

For example, at Wilson High School, the majority of the 32 entrances were unguarded, and most of them did not have an alarm to alert security guards about trespassers, the report indicates.

Although doors at some entrances at Ballou were equipped with alarms, students tampered with the wiring and disabled the devices, the report indicates. In the February shooting, a student is thought to have smuggled a gun past a security guard.

“Until the door security problem is properly addressed, [schools] will not have adequate security mechanisms in place to prevent unauthorized access into school buildings,” the report states.

School officials have said the city fire code prevents officials from locking doors if the doors require a key to unlock or if they take more than 30 seconds to open.

The report also found that most schools have closed-circuit television monitoring equipment, but that the devices often do not work.

A school system technology specialist blamed those failures on delays in getting parts to fix the cameras as well as thunderstorms that caused wiring damage, the report shows.

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