A group of Fairfax County educators say while some of the county's school safety procedures are effective, the system needs to reassess its security policies.
In a survey last week on guns and school safety by the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, one of the county's largest teachers' unions, 60 percent of the nearly 500 teachers who responded said visitor control procedures were among the larger threats to school safety and security.
Enforcement of policies about guest sign-in, locked entry doors and whether students and parents were allowed to roam halls are inconsistent from building to building, they said.
"Anyone can walk in and do whatever they want," one teacher wrote. "That's the scary part."
In comments attached to the survey's multiple-choice questionnaire, which also indicated the majority of educators don't want guns in Fairfax schools, most teachers said elementary schools are more secure and consistent in screening visitors and keeping exterior doors locked during the day. High schools are the least secure, teachers wrote.
School board member Ryan McElveen (at-large) said the survey reflected “the different educational environments in the county—some of our high schools are huge and might need more security resources, and some elementary schools have an “open classroom” design that might need to be reconsidered," he told Patch. "As we move forward, we should spend precious taxpayer dollars on addressing outdoor trailer and door security, not buying guns to arm our teachers."
After the December shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., some Fairfax schools have reviewed and revised their visitor access procedures, FCPS spokesman John Torre said.
(Read about how Fairfax City schools have stepped up security since the Newtown shootings.)
At the moment, there are no plans for a system-wide meeting on those policies, Torre said.
"We certainly welcome our teachers’ input on security issues," he wrote in an email to Patch. "We believe our schools are safe places but our safety and security officials will consider the suggestions offered by the survey participants to determine if there are any steps that can be taken to enhance security.”
All elementary and middle school outside doors are locked during the day, Torre said, as are all classroom trailers, and all have electronic door access systems. A few schools without video intercoms for their front doors are having those installed this month, he wrote in an email to Patch.
An electronic door access system allows front office staff to ask for a person's identity and the reason for visiting the school before "buzzing" visitors into the building, after which they proceed to the office and sign-in before moving throughout the school.
But in reality, teachers who took the survey said, visitors can often enter schools and move within them without staff knowing who they are or where they're going. External doors are not always kept locked; when they are, some visitors knock on doors in an effort to get teachers and students to open them.
And many students comply, teachers said.
"FCPS has good rules for safety but I don't believe everyone follows them," one teacher wrote.
Not all doors leading into high schools are locked, Torre said, but the schools limit access through certain entrances.
The teachers' union president, Steve Greenburg, said visitor access is a huge issue, and one the system will have to tackle going forward.
"That's going to be tricky," Greenburg said. "Because every parent wants open and accessible schools, but at the same time they want secure schools. That is going to be one of the large conversation pieces we have as we move forward."
Other procedures teachers thought needed to be revisited:
FCPS Rules and Regulations
Crisis / Security Plans
Conducting "drills" (practice for emergencies)
Classroom guides for emergencies
School crisis / management teams
Lock or key repair / replacement
Visitor control procedures
Schools regularly train staff and faculty in emergency procedures and conduct annual lockdown drills, Torre said, though half of the teachers responding to the teacher union survey said they thought they needed more training.
The lack of locks, or even doors, on some classrooms also worried some teachers, as did the security of trailers and modular classrooms.
"We feel very vulnerable in an elementary school with lots of windows and an open floor plan with very very few doors in the building- none on any classroom," one teacher wrote.
The school system asked teachers countywide about building security in its 2012 FCPS Working Conditions Survey conducted between Jan. 9 and Feb. 3, 2012, Torre said, though he said the questions in that survey were not as specific as in the one given by FCFT.
Of the 12,405 educators who responded to that survey, 72 percent "strongly agreed" the physical environment of their schools made teachers and staff feel safe; 22 percent "Somewhat agreed."
Greenburg said he hoped the school system "actually takes [the results from the teachers' union survey] and uses them to help guide policy."
"That's the whole point," he added, noting he appreciated the response to the survey he'd received from school and school board officials.
For full results, including teacher comments, click the PDF at right.