It’s too easy to get on some school campuses.
The San Diego Unified School District says campus safety is its top priority. Visitors to any of the district’s more than 200 schools are required to report their presence to officials. But while the requirement exists, enforcement varies widely from school to school.
Recently, at San Diego High School, I walked through an open and unguarded gate next to the school’s visitor parking lot. As summer school students changed classes, I quickly faced a flow of 50 students. No one approached me or confirmed whether I was an authorized visitor.
The same day, at Lincoln High, I discovered a security guard sat within a dozen feet of the school’s main gate – but with back turned – faced away from the entrance.
I walked on campus unnoticed and crossed school grounds while students walked near and around my path. I arrived at an open and unattended south-facing gate leading from the school’s parking garage to a back street.
Less than an hour later, at Morse High, I walked through an open and unguarded main gate and strode by the school’s main office. As I walked near a row of classrooms, I heard adult voices –perhaps teachers talking to students. Next, I walked through an open door leading into a meeting hall, which was empty. Then I found an open and unattended west-facing gate. As I walked back across campus, a group of students completed exercise routines about a hundred feet away, and, like at the other schools, no one approached me.
Though fewer students are on campuses during summer school, lax security practices persist during the regular school year, too.
I spoke with parents who also noticed that school security varies from site to site.
“Valencia Park Elementary uses a completely locked down system – three of my kids go there,” parent Jamie Wilson told me. A locked-down campus is one where school security practices are strictly enforced. “But at O’Farrell, I can walk in without being questioned, unless I cross paths with someone walking the halls that works there,” Wilson wrote, referring to The O’Farrell Charter School, which comprises elementary, middle and high school grade levels.
Jill Andersen, principal at The O’Farrell Middle School, said that the campus has two main points of entry, a lower and upper office.
“The high school office was built such that parents must enter the office before they have access to campus. The lower campus has signage that mandates visitors check in to the office, but technically a visitor could bypass the office and enter campus,” Anderson wrote in an email. “The lower campus is currently under a modernization project; once that is complete, visitors will only be able to enter through the main office and will no longer have the ability to bypass the office.”
Andersen also said the school’s staff is “trained to stop anyone on campus without a staff ID or guest badge to help direct them to sign in at the office. We have two full-time supervision personnel who monitor the campus throughout the day.”
Meanwhile, at Hoover High School, Wilson said she can walk in without noticeable barriers. “Anytime I’ve gone there, there wasn’t anything keeping me out,” she said.
Hoover Principal Joe Austin said leadership teams at each district school decide campus security protocols. These districtwide leadership teams, called Site Governance Teams, are meant to ensure teachers, parents, school police and administration work together on important issues involving students, including safety and parent communication.
I asked Austin why campus security varies so greatly at different schools.
“There are lots of reasons why it might differ from site to site: resources, facilities and community needs, just to name a few,” he said.
The district says security decisions are based on the operational needs of the school and school principals may fund additional positions as they see fit. High schools in the district have campus police officers and campus security assistants, while middle schools have campus security assistants, and can call for school police response if needed. Elementary schools may have community service officers, as available, or campus security assistants, if desired, according to the district.
I reached out to Rueben Littlejohn, chief of police for San Diego Unified School District’s police department. He’s also an executive member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a nationwide collaborative of law enforcement, intelligence agencies and others that aim to protect the country from terrorist activity.
In an email, Littlejohn wrote “our schools are not all designed the same, which can result in different entry points. The variations in campuses have to do with when they were built.”
He said a districtwide security assessment performed by a third party during the 2012-13 school year resulted in numerous upgrades, “including the rollout of 4,500 handheld radios to sites, installation and upgrades of video surveillance, new fencing, new locks on classroom doors and additional ways to keep students safe and secure during lockdowns.”
Littlejohn said the district prepares for terrorist threats, too.
“San Diego Unified is a part of regular meetings [with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force] to remain connected and informed on any important information. If our schools or the community were to be threatened, we would be informed and necessary steps would be taken to notify and inform schools and families of any necessary information or instructions,” he said.
The district posts its schools’ emergency response plans and encourages parents to contact school principals with concerns about school’s safety, as well as report any suspicious item or person at or around a school. (Not me.)
“The district continues to work to address the safety and security of our sites,” Littlejohn said.