September 3, 2013 6:12 pm

Back to school: Locked door policy, cameras only part of a safe school, say experts

WATCH: Nine months after the Connecticut school shootings, Ontario schools are open for a new year. As Sean O’Shea reports, many have spent provincial money to bolster security.

TORONTO – When a gunman entered Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 children and six adults last December, the calls for improved school safety were heard 800 kilometres away.

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Then-Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a “locked-door” policy at all 4,000 elementary schools in the province by this September, and pushed a government program that would install video cameras outside school doors where the entrance wasn’t in direct line-of-sight to the office.

Peel District School Board spokesperson Carla Pereira explained their “Safe Welcome” program involves a small camera installed at front (locked) doors where visitors buzz, and the visitor then waits to be let in by office staff. She said all systems are installed except for a handful where main entrances are under construction and a “very small number” with technical issues expected to be resolved by the end of this week.

In the Toronto District School Board, 70 per cent of schools already had some sort of access system in place, according to spokesperson Ryan Bird. He said the additional government funding allowed them to finish the process: with either an intercom and buzzer, or intercom-buzzer-camera combination when there is not a direct line of sight between the office and the front door.

Read more: How safe are Toronto’s students?

Safe Schools Department Superintendent Rory McGuckin with the Toronto Catholic District School Board said his board has had access control systems for at least 10 years in some schools (either a buzzer, audio/visual phone that shows a visitor’s photograph on the telephone device, or the “Talkmaster” which pops a picture of the visitor onto the secretary’s computer monitor). McGuckin said with the additional government money they were able to address 27 schools that were in need of equipment or upgrades.

Every Ontario school board is also required to have a local police-school board protocol, including a lockdown plan practiced at least twice a year. The government has arranged for professional development and training for school staff and local police services to implement the protocol at both the elementary and secondary levels.

So is the locked-door policy and the technology that comes with it the answer to community concerns?

“It’s actually one piece,” said founder and president of The Canadian Safe School Network Stu Auty. “The fact is, you can’t prevent everything.”

Auty believes having cameras and locked-door policies are valuable and make sense, and points to the fact that there’s been a change in communities that are concerned about having total access to a building while also wanting it to be welcoming.

“Buildings in Ontario are quite old, and when schools were built years ago, they weren’t built with entrance and safety in mind,” he added.

Auty said vigilance at the school site is likely the best option when there’s a predator going into the building, but thankfully, that scenario is quite rare in Canada.

But while parents can see the cameras and hear about new security protocols, Auty said early intervention programs don’t market as well, “because you never know what you’ll prevent.”

Independent security consultant David Hyde acknowledged the marketing vein of these policies, calling measures like the locked-door policy and access cameras “slogans for effective security.” Hyde worries that schools need to make sure to customize such plans to fit their environment.

He noted that the design of schools has changed over the years, which may be “great for learning, but not so great for security” because of what he calls “layers.”

“We want to be able to lock a classroom, let’s say, or lock a wing of the school, lock the door of the school,” said Hyde. “And the more security layers we can get in place, the better… Is it two floors or one floor? How many doors are there into the school? What age of kids go into the school? Where is it located? All of these are key factors in designing security at a school.”

Hyde supports the locked-door policy, and believes it is working to make schools in Ontario more secure. However, like Auty, he believes the additional technology is only one component of good security.

“Having a camera, having locked-door protocols are great, but you have to have the procedural framework to wrap around it,” he suggested. “When do I let somebody in at that front door? Are the cameras recording for as long as they should? Can we look back in a month’s time and get the images that we need?

“There’s a lot of procedural focus that needs to be in place on these security protocols to make them effective.”

With files from Sean O’Shea and The Canadian Press

© Shaw Media, 2013

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