Open the door to security

11th July 1997 at 01:00
As any investigator knows, follow one line of enquiry and you're sure to stumble upon another. Recently, while visiting local schools to conduct research about class size I made some alarming discoveries about school security, or the lack of it.

Problems with design mean some schools have great difficulty in making their premises totally secure. But what has sent shivers down my spine are the glaring lapses of security which stem from human error. This is in schools which believe they are security-conscious and worldly-wise.

At all the schools I visited the perimeter had been secured and access restricted to one, or possibly two, gates. All displayed notices about a security procedure, instructing all visitors to use the main door and report to the office on arrival. At this point theory and practice diverged. I entered two buildings through unlocked doors into empty rooms and could have done as I pleased before anyone had realised there was a stranger on the premises.

In one instance, the front door was locked but I spotted that another door had been wedged open. I knocked and looked in. To my surprise the place was deserted; valuable supplies and equipment sat unprotected in unlocked cupboards. I finally managed to attract the attention of the kitchen staff and reported my presence in the building.

Later that day, at another school, a notice next to the bell instructed me to ring for attention because the front door was kept locked. No one answered my two rings. A woman with a child in tow followed me up the path. I assumed she was a parent. She turned the handle and the unlocked door opened. She pointed me towards the staff room and scurried off along the opposite corridor with her child. I had to walk past several classrooms to find someone to help me. The reception area was again deserted, with offices and store cupboards unsecured.

While these are the worst lapses of security I encountered, they are by no means isolated. More than one extremely courteous member of staff politely held a door open for me to enter the school without asking who I was or what I wanted, before leaving me to wander around unaccompanied.

I did find some schools which were models of good practice, and there were few places where I was not escorted to the door at the end of my visit.

The chances of an incident occurring on school premises may be minimal, but it is not acceptable to put security procedures in place only to negate them by carelessness or even by an over-polite attitude to strangers. Governors and teachers must make sure that security systems operate effectively all the time. We rarely get second chances.

Denise Bates is a school governor in the North-west

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