A Sun Journal reporter walked through an open back door at Poland Regional High School, past kitchen staff and into the cafeteria. He peeked into classrooms, dodged students as they rushed to get to class and nearly stumbled into the girls’ locker room.

For 20 minutes, he had access to virtually every part of the high school and its attached middle school. One hundred faculty members. Six hundred kids.

At Sabattus Primary School, a reporter entered through the front doors and found the main office area completely devoid of
adults. A little boy stood there alone.

She had the run of the school for 15 minutes, wandering into a library, a nurse’s office and a classroom, all empty. She walked through an active gym class, but the teacher barely glanced at her.

At Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris, a reporter spent 10 minutes outside, tugging on every side and back door to see if they were locked. After going in through the main entrance, she walked the halls for 40 minutes, passing some classrooms three times.

Just weeks after a spate of school shootings rocked the nation, no one — not even a police officer who fell in step behind her — challenged the reporter’s presence.


In all three cases, schools failed to maintain even basic security.

And they weren’t alone.

In a Sun Journal investigation, 14 reporters fanned out to check the security at 37 schools across Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. A quarter of the schools did well — with locked doors, monitored entries and vigilant staff — but others showed gaping holes in security. Many failed to follow their own fundamental safety rules.

In more than half the schools, we were able to wander inside and out for 10 minutes or more. In nearly a quarter, we were never challenged at all.

It’s a problem state officials have begun to notice.

“We have a significant range across the state,” said Harvey Boatman, who does his own security spot checks for the state Department of Education. “From very, very, very good to terrifying.”



For generations, there was no such thing as school security in Maine. Doors were left unlocked. Visitors wandered
in and out. Only fire drills prepared students for any sort of emergency.

Then, in 1999, there was Columbine.

Two Colorado high school students opened fire in an all-out assault that killed and wounded dozens. It was America’s deadliest school shooting, and the nation took notice.

In Maine, Catholic schools began locking all doors and buzzing in visitors. Around the same time, the state required some private and all public schools to keep crisis response plans to follow in case of a natural disaster, schoolyard fight, power outage, bomb threat or hostage situation.

This year, school security was brought to the forefront once more after a tide of school shootings, three of them by adult intruders, one at a one-room Amish school.


“It’s a real eye-opener for rural communities,” Boatman said.

Maine has not mandated specific day-to-day school security measures. But state and national experts say schools should, at minimum:

• Lock all side and back doors, keeping only a single entry monitored by school personnel.

• Require visitors to check in at the office and wear a badge during their visit.

• Train staff to politely stop strangers and escort them to the office if they don’t have a badge.

It’s pretty simple, said Ron Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. “You don’t want people wandering around the campus.”


Generally, local schools — concerned about parental kidnappings, intruders and assaults — have accepted the experts’ recommendations and made them policy.

“Some think it won’t happen here. I don’t believe that. It could happen here,” said SAD 9 Superintendent Michael Cormier, who oversees schools in nine Farmington-area towns.


In the Sun Journal security survey, access was not a problem.

In Lewiston, three elementary schools stopped reporters within minutes, but two others let the strangers roam. At Lewiston Middle, a staff member watched a reporter slip in through an open side door, saying only, “You’re lucky to get in there. It’s usually locked.”

In Auburn, two schools stopped the reporter within a few minutes. Three allowed them to wander. At Fairview Elementary, a male reporter fell into line with fifth-graders and accompanied them to their classroom.


“This is frustrating. It’s going to be a wake-up call to my staff,” Principal Cathy Folan said after learning of what happened.

In SAD 15, which includes Gray and New Gloucester, a reporter found open side doors at both the middle and high schools. At Gray-New Gloucester High School, she walked into a busy cafeteria, greeted a staff member, stood next to an adult hall monitor and walked into a full teachers’ lounge without being stopped.

“Obviously, something’s broken down,” said SAD 15 Superintendent Victoria Burns.

In SAD 39, which serves Buckfield, Hartford and Sumner, a reporter wandered through Buckfield Jr./Sr. High School’s halls for 40 minutes. Seven staff members smiled at her. Two others asked if she was OK but didn’t ask who she was, didn’t escort her to the office and didn’t stop her from walking the halls.

Unlike staff at most area schools, Buckfield teachers aren’t trained to stop strangers. That may change.

“I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of preparing them,” said Superintendent Richard Colpitts.


Training doesn’t guarantee a secure school, however. In Union 44, which serves Litchfield, Sabattus and Wales, staff learn about school security every fall. This year, Sabattus police got involved.

“Staff are very well-trained,” said Superintendent Susan Hodgdon. But at Sabattus Primary School, a staff member held open a door for a reporter, allowing the stranger to pass into a classroom wing. At Oak Hill High School in Wales, a reporter roamed the halls for 20 minutes and passed a half-dozen teachers. Only one asked, “Can I help you?”

Hodgdon was surprised.

“We’ll certainly go back to staff and find out what went wrong,” she said.


The state Department of Education knows some schools have security issues.


“It’s something we should be concerned about,” Boatman said. “People should not be able to enter our schools without being identified.”

The state is working to identify problem schools. It plans to hold a security training session for them in the next few months.

After the Sun Journal told local school officials about its findings, many vowed to make changes on their own.

A couple plan to look into buzzer systems so they can secure all school doors and be alerted when visitors arrive. Some plan to put up more signs directing visitors to the office. Others say they’ll be more careful about locking back doors, and they’ve asked staff to be more vigilant about strangers.

“I already called a staff meeting,” said Peru Elementary School Principal Brenda Gammon. “I said, ‘Whether you know the person or not, they need a badge.’”

Lewiston and Auburn superintendents have worked to improve security for years. They’ve trained staff and added some surveillance cameras. The Sun Journal’s findings reminded them of why they’re doing it.


“It shows we still have work to do,” Auburn Superintendent Barbara Eretzian said.

But officials in Auburn, Lewiston and other school systems say large-scale changes take money, which they don’t have. There are also logistical problems — such as locking back doors when students must rotate between main buildings and portable classrooms. And there is a philosophical issue: Are schools turning into fortresses?

“Do you put wire around? What do you do?” asked Lewiston Superintendent Leon Levesque.

In Jay, one of the most secure school systems in the survey, Superintendent Robert Wall has answered those questions for his elementary, middle and high schools.

“People say nothing’s going to happen here. But nothing’s going to happen in Amish country either, is it?” he said, referring to the October shooting of 10 girls at a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania.

All three Jay schools lock their side and back doors, watch their front doors and tell staff to stop strangers if they see them. The school system is looking into spending about $40,000 on surveillance cameras and a swipe-card system that would lock out intruders but let teachers come and go with their students.

Wall believes the cost, the hassle and the raised eyebrows he might get are worth it.

“We have to say, ‘What’s the price of security?’”

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