How safe are elementary schools?

Posted: February 25, 2014

AFTER A 5-year-old girl allegedly was abducted from a West Philadelphia school and raped in January 2013, School District officials said they were mounting a comprehensive review of security procedures at their buildings.

"We want to get ahead of things," Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Cynthia Dorsey, who was in charge of the district's Office of School Safety at the time, had said last March.

But more than a year after the widely publicized incident at William Cullen Bryant Elementary, at 60th Street and Cedar Avenue - in which a woman wearing Muslim garb allegedly posed as the girl's mother - two parents are wondering whether their children remain vulnerable to security lapses.

"When I've walked in, you could literally go down the steps or come in the back of the school and just have free roam of the building," said David Brass, of Mayfair, whose two sons attend Edwin Forrest Elementary School, at Cottage Street and Cottman Avenue, in Holmesburg.

One of Brass' worst fears was realized last year when his ex-wife, against whom he has a protection-from-abuse order, entered the school and approached one of his sons.

"She literally met my son, and my son froze up in the schoolyard," said Brass. "My 14-year-old stepdaughter had to grab him and [say], 'She's not supposed to be here.' That's when she took off out of the schoolyard."

After the incident, Brass looked for answers, questioning the principal about security and the school's surveillance cameras. He said he was told that some of the school's cameras were not working. Others, he found, were missing or dangling from walls.

That's when he realized that he was able to walk unsupervised through the main building and a secondary building for lower grades.

Now he knows what to do when he brings his sons to school.

"I wait till the schoolyard becomes empty in the morning and the doors shut, and then I leave," he said. "There comes a time you just have to take it into your own hands."

Donte Thomas, a parent of two pupils at James J. Sullivan Elementary, at Ditman and Sanger streets, in Wissinoming, said that he usually can walk directly to their classrooms unsupervised once he gets buzzed in through the front door.

Other times, he said, he goes to the main office, an employee calls the classrooms, and the teachers send his children down. Even then, he said, no one verifies that his kids have reached him.

"They don't ever have [a] guard," Thomas said. "I [haven't] seen one this year. They had one last year."

Thomas said that he rarely is asked for identification, as district policy requires. "At this school, after you show your ID a few times, they don't ask you anymore," he said.

The district's policy stipulates that an authority figure at a school must greet visitors at the front door and escort them to the office, where they must sign a register and get a visitor's pass or ID badge and, if necessary, an escort. Any staff member being visited also must require the visitor to show a pass or badge.

The policy prohibits visitors from going directly to a classroom to deliver or "pick up" pupils or speak to teachers unless such visits have been approved by the principal. Approval for taking a pupil from school must be granted only to a parent or guardian having custody, unless that person gives permission in writing to release the pupil to a designated family member or adult.

'We do the best we can'

Budget cuts have significantly reduced the number of personnel in buildings in recent years, making it difficult to handle visitors, according to Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, who has overseen district security since October.

"We do have police officers in many of our schools," Holmes said. "Some schools have shared officers, but we do not have the ability at this point to have staff dedicated solely to the responsibility of visitor management. We understand that's an important and vital component of the school day, but we do the best we can under the circumstances."

The district is approved for 385 officers, but Holmes said that long-term illness and injuries cause the number of active officers to fluctuate daily. Plans to hire more officers must be approved, he said.

Also complicating matters is the layout of many older buildings, which allows someone to access a stairway before getting to the main level. Holmes referred to those buildings as "logistic nightmares."

"That's not an excuse, but that is the reality of the situation, where most of our schools' buildings were built to be just that - schools - not necessarily secure facilities," he said. "We have to address those on an individual basis and do continuous improvement and see what our problems are, what our issues are, and address them as best we can.

"Ultimately, I want to solve this issue and make sure our students are as safe as possible," he said.

Thomas Kline, the attorney representing the family of the girl abducted from Bryant, said that more training also is needed.

"What [the Bryant] case proved to me, so far, is that, absent vigilance and training, no amount of changes in policies or rules or procedures will be successful unless those who are at the front doors of our schools, those who are in the classroom of our schools, whether they be permanent teachers or temporary staff - unless they're trained, there are going to be future breakdowns."

According to Holmes, each school has a security team that is supposed to meet monthly to review security procedures. District-wide security meetings happen less frequently, he said.

One parent is running out of patience. Brass said he is so frustrated by the security issues at Forrest that he applied to send his kids to a charter school in the neighborhood.

"It's just the little things starting to add up, and it's going to lead to something big," he said. "I think it's a lack of following through and being present. If you go past the high school, you see constant presence of school police, you see the presence of Philadelphia police. You go into the elementary schools, you don't see pretty much anything. You see one school police [officer] walking around, and the principal from time to time."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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