What's safer? Locked or not?

01/14/2013 12:00 AM

01/13/2013 10:45 PM

Behind a locked classroom door, a Los Angeles third-grade teacher purportedly committed lewd acts against students. The charges spurred demands for classrooms to remain open during the school day.

But after the shooting deaths of 20 first-graders in Connecticut last month, calls were made to keep classrooms locked.

The intent of both efforts is to keep students safe. But as school districts nationwide examine their security measures after the Newtown, Conn., massacre, the question of locked versus unlocked classroom doors is in debate. Should teachers and administrators use their secured doors as a shield from an outside danger? Or does a locked door conceal a potential danger inside?

The answers differ. Some schools, such as the 14 operated by Southern California charter group PUC Schools, are required to keep doors open. Others, including the campuses in the Martinez Unified School District in Contra Costa County, require classrooms to be secured at all times. The Los Angeles Unified School District, like many others, leaves it up to administrators and instructors to decide, and the decision can vary from teacher to teacher.

Such security concerns come as educators and experts say a key piece of education reform is to allow teachers and administrators to drop in and out of classrooms to observe colleagues at work. Keeping doors open minimizes the disruption.

There is no easy solution, say teachers, parents and administrators.

On Thursday, a 16-year-old student wielding a 12-gauge shotgun burst into an unlocked classroom at Taft Union High School near Bakersfield and shot a fellow student in the chest and wounded a teacher.

Desiree Manuel, principal at Huerta Elementary School in Los Angeles, says a secured door may have at least slowed down the gunman.

"If a person was on campus and they were looking to get in a class to do damage, if they can't open the door immediately, they might keep going until they find an unlocked door," she said. "If the doors are locked, the hope is that they would keep checking, which would buy us more time."

Manuel has a policy of keeping classrooms locked. It gives peace of mind to the staff members who deal with significant foot traffic in front of the campus south of downtown, she said.

Manuel doesn't think she's at a disadvantage in terms of noticing signs of improper behavior by teachers or students. She regularly visits teachers, has a master key and can see into classrooms through window blinds.

"Locked doors just help everyone feel safer on campus," Manuel said. "It is just easier to keep the doors locked because of the community that we're in."

At the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit under the control of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, part of the teaching philosophy is to be transparent and open. Teachers are encouraged to keep doors open during instruction, although there is no mandate.

"We so much subscribe to the notion of having administrators and peer observers in the classrooms all the time," said Patrick Sinclair, a spokesman for the group that operates 15 campuses, including Huerta. "We can't keep the doors locked because we have so many people coming and going. That's part of the model."

Locked doors could hinder that approach while not truly guarding against a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Sinclair said. There, a gunman shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children and six adults, before turning the gun on himself.

"The school didn't let him in. He shot his way in. There may be nothing you can do short of turning your school into a windowless fortress," he said.

Keeping doors open, Sinclair said, also helps safeguard students from what reportedly occurred at Miramonte Elementary School in the Florence-Firestone area. Third-grade teacher Mark Berndt was charged last year with 23 counts of lewd conduct for allegedly spoon-feeding his semen to students, among other acts. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in jail on $23 million bail.

Parents have mixed reactions. At the schools his children attend in Burbank, parent David Dobson said, "Ninety percent of the doors are unlocked."

"One teacher at Disney Elementary locks her door," he said, quickly adding, "but we know her very well."

If all doors had been secured at Sandy Hook, he said, "there would have been a totally different outcome."

South Pasadena parent Julie Giulioni is divided.

"I wish I was smart enough to know," she said. "I favor having a door a teacher can lock."

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