Not too long ago, Susan Fitz, principal of Bren Mar Park Elementary School, received a phone call from the Fairfax County Police Department warning the administrator of an incident that occurred close by and, for security reasons, suggested locking the doors.
That wasn't a problem for Fitz, who only had to go to the front door.
"It was easy," Fitz said. "All our doors except the front door are locked anyway."
That's because Bren Mar Park, located just west of Alexandria town limits, is one of the 33 schools throughout the county already outfitted with a security system, which includes a combination of video intercoms and card readers, aimed at limiting the accessibility of the schools to the general public.
The county school system hopes to install the security measures in all of its elementary and middle schools over the next two years.
THE SCHOOL SYSTEM has been piloting a variety of security measures at approximately 20 schools to see what devices, or combination of devices, would work best in the school environment.
"We tested a number of different things, for example cipher locks [the type that require the operator to enter a code], and decided that didn't work," said Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent for the Department of Facilities and Transportation Services. "Our first priority is to go to schools that were part of the pilot and put in the new system."
Another priority, Tistadt said, was schools where the front office staff does not have a view of the main door. The new security system will also be incorporated into the renovation and new construction program, so as a new school is built or an older one is remodeled, the system will be installed.
The new security system is a plus at Stenwood Elementary in Vienna, which has been using the system since mid September.
"We're open to the little tiny neighborhood [behind the school] and people cut across our lot going to the metro station," Laraine Edwards, the Stenwood principal, said. "People have actually cut through the school."
Stenwood is set off of Gallows Road and is hard to see, however, the back of the school opens up to the neighborhood, with no fences surrounding the school, and the Dunn Loring Metro Station and Route 66 are about a block from the school. In addition, there is no view of the front entrance from the office.
The security system has an Aiphone video intercom installed at the front door and the door leading to the playground and trailers, which requires a visitor to ring the bell to activate the system. Two videophones in the front office link directly to the box located at the door, so the office staff can see and talk to the visitor.
In addition, four proximity card readers will be installed — two at the same doors as the video intercoms and two at staff-only entrances. Each staff member's identification card will be outfitted with a device that is read by the card reader and unlocks the door. The principal can customize the security system so that only certain doors will be accessible to specific personal at different times. For example, Edwards said at her school, the custodians' cards will unlock the doors beginning at 7 a.m., while teachers cannot open the doors until a little later. She can also control who has access to the building after hours.
THE BATHROOM PASSES at Stenwood also have the card reader devices, so students coming from the playground or trailers can gain access to the building.
"The hardest part was teaching the kids not to open the doors for people, not even me or the teachers," Edwards said.
At Bren Mar Park, Fitz said the student like using the video intercom.
"The kids love pushing the doorbell, and once they realized it was a camera, they loved it even more. They push the bell and look up smiling at the secretaries," Fitz said.
So far staff and parents have embraced the new technology, which costs $14,000 per school or a total of $1.75 million for 125 schools and is being funded as part of a security package that was included in the newly approved school bond.
"Overwhelmingly our parents are happy," Edwards said. "We have had a few parents who said they feel the school is so closed, but things have changed so much in the world that parents understand."
Similarly, Fitz said her parents have been supportive of the new technology.
"After hours, it's a security thing," said Shirley Newhouse, who works in the front office at Stenwood. "It's an improvement over what we had."
Tistadt said the security system will not be installed in the high schools because there is already enough protection at those facilities with school security personnel and the School Resource Officer, who is a Fairfax County police officer assigned to a county school.