Buzzer system adds security in Frederick schools

Posted: February 1, 2014

The Winchester Star

Stonewall Elementary School parent Christen Johnson uses the buzzer at the school’s front entrance on Friday afternoon. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — A new security measure will soon take effect at Frederick County’s elementary schools.

Beginning on Monday, visitors to the 11 schools must push a call button, be identified by a staff member and be “buzzed in” before entering.

Once inside the main door, the person will wait in a secure entryway outside the main office until a staff member unlocks the door and allows him or her to enter.

Anyone who follows another person into the secured area without having been identified at the main doorway will be asked to return to the exterior of the building and follow the entry procedure guidelines.

“For some people, this may seem like a little bit of an inconvenience because it is a change,” said Steve Edwards, the county school system’s coordinator of policy and communications. “Hopefully, people will feel that we’ve struck a reasonable balance between safety and having welcoming schools for the community.”

The new entry system is the latest security enhancement undertaken at the county schools during the past year.

Edwards said school safety is a constant consideration, but awareness about security was “heightened” by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

“The new buzz-in entry system that’s being implemented at our elementary schools is a very visible example of the ongoing work to improve security at our schools,” county Schools Superintendent David Sovine said in a press release. “There are a number of other security enhancements that have been completed at our schools over the past several months that will not be noticeable to the public or publicized.

“Keeping many of the details of our crisis management plans and security systems confidential is a means of security in itself.”

Sovine credited and thanked the division’s Facility Services and Information Technology departments as well as the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office for their assistance with and work on the project.

Notices about the change were sent home with elementary students on Monday, Edwards said. Employees working in each building will be able to enter without being recognized via key fobs that provide access for them.

The buzz-in system, he said, is not being implemented at the county’s four middle schools and three high schools, but might be considered in the future.

Those schools have resource police officers assigned to them, Edwards noted, as well as having a person stationed at each entrance to greet visitors and direct them to their destinations.

Buzz-in entry is in place in Winchester’s four elementary schools, as well as Daniel Morgan Middle School, Handley High School and the Douglas Community Learning Center, said Kevin McKew, executive director of the city school system.

He estimated that the security measure has been in place at city elementary schools for about a decade and was installed at the middle and high schools during their renovations in the 2000s.

Division officials are pleased with the way the system works, McKew said, noting that parents and visitors adapted to the change with few complaints. Schools have adapted their operations somewhat to lessen the inconvenience.

“Particularly for the parents, to know it’s a more secure building, I think they appreciate that,” he said.

Though the system has worked well, McKew said he is certain that future upgrades will be made to improve building security and visitor convenience.

One potential change under consideration for Handley is to create a secure indoor alcove so visitors will not be exposed to the elements while waiting to be admitted to the building.

In Clarke County, Schools Superintendent Mike Murphy said a buzz-in system was built in at the new high school, and one will be in place when the former high school is opened as D.G. Cooley Elementary’s campus for pre-kindergarten through third-grade students in the fall.

He added that RRMM, the Chesapeake-based architectural firm working on the Cooley project, has surveyed all other county schools “and is working on modifications to allow us to enhance security at all remaining buildings.”

The installation of double-door entrances and additional cameras are among the features being studied, Murphy said, and a plan is being developed so project funding can be requested from the Clarke County Board of Supervisors.

Other divisions with similar systems were consulted as the Frederick County security measure was developed, Edwards said.

In addition to the Sheriff’s Office, he said, each school’s principal worked to develop protocols for the new system. Suggestions were provided by front office staff members, but parent groups were not consulted.

“We worked mostly with the principals on how people access their schools,” Edwards said. “They are the experts in the needs of their school communities, what will work for their staff, what will work for their parents.

“Our No. 1 goal is to maintain safe schools, but we want to make them welcoming, too.”

As of midday on Friday, Edwards said the only comment he had heard about the planned change was a few positive posts on the division’s Facebook page and a comment Sovine heard from a high school student with a sibling in elementary school, who indicated her parents were pleased that the system was being implemented.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw