Locked doors, buzzers and vigilant staff. In a six-month follow- up to a Sun Journal school security investigation, reporters found big improvements.

October: A reporter walked through an open back door at Poland Regional High School. 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.

May: A reporter found all side and back doors locked at the Poland school. Walking through the front, he was stopped by a teacher within a minute and escorted to the office.

October: At Sabattus Primary School, a reporter had the run of the school for 15 minutes after she walked through the front doors and found the main office empty.

May: A reporter was buzzed in and escorted to the office.

October: A reporter wandered the halls of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris for 40 minutes. No one — not even the police officer who fell in step behind her — challenged her presence.


May: A reporter slipped in through an open side door but was stopped by a teacher five minutes later. He was walked to the office and then, on his way out, was stopped again by a police officer.

When the Sun Journal did its initial investigation last fall, 64 percent of schools allowed reporters to roam halls and grounds for 10 minutes or more.

Six months later, that fell to 33 percent.

But some schools still struggle. At Gray-New Gloucester High School, a reporter had free rein for 45 minutes.

“That’s embarrassing,” said Principal Paul Penna.



In October 2006, weeks after a spate of school shootings rocked the nation, Sun Journal reporters fanned out to check the security at 37 schools across Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. One-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.

After the investigation, Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron urged all superintendents to establish a single entry point at their schools, to issue visitor passes and to train staff to address strangers who didn’t have passes.

Many local schools agreed to follow those recommendations. Last Tuesday, the Sun Journal sent newsroom staffers out to check.

We went to the same 37 schools. (Because of questionable data, one school has been excluded from the chart and this story.)

We found better security at most schools.

Last fall, 63 percent of schools left more than one door unlocked. This spring, that fell to 44 percent.


Last fall, personnel at eight schools failed to stop reporters. Six months later, that happened at only one school.

Of the six Lewiston schools checked, four had better security and one, Farwell Elementary, performed well both last fall and this spring.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re improving,” said Lewiston Superintendent Leon Levesque.

In Auburn, three of five public schools improved and one, Park Avenue Elementary, performed well in both investigations. “Everyone is rising to the occasion and tackling the challenge,” said Auburn Assistant Superintendent Tom Morrill.

In SAD 17, which serves the Oxford Hills area, two schools improved and a third, Paris Elementary School, performed as well as the school it replaced, Madison Avenue Elementary.

“This is a constant vigilance that we must do to make sure our students are safe,” said SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman.


Many school leaders have trained staff to stop strangers. Some schools added front-door vestibules or buzzer systems to prevent people from wandering inside without being seen. Other schools simply started locking their back doors and paying attention to strangers.

Peru Elementary School Principal Brenda Gammon saw how well it all worked when a reporter showed up last week. The stranger was spotted before she even got to the door. It was a catch that elated school staff.

“We were giving each other high-fives,” Gammon said.

The overall changes also pleased the Maine Department of Education, which has been stressing school safety for months.

“You can’t play it by ear,” said Edwin “Buzz” Kastuck, a department consultant who has been working with schools on security issues. “There’s too much happening.”



Although most schools showed big improvements in safety, others did not.

A few were worse.

In October, Gray-New Gloucester High School stopped the reporter after 20 minutes inside.

Last week, they never knew she was there.

For 45 minutes she roamed the school, going in and out of side doors, pausing to read the lunch menu and stepping inside a classroom where a student studied alone. She passed a number of teachers, including one who said, “Good morning.”

That sorely disappointed school leaders, who’d talked to staff about strangers less than a week earlier. The principal vowed to meet with staff again.


“It’s got to be the first point of concern for us,” said Penna, the principal, who has a background in criminal justice.

Security at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Auburn also was more lax than last fall, when the reporter was approached by a teacher just seconds after he walked into the school. Last week, a reporter walked around the school for 25 minutes. She brushed past teachers, spent several minutes reading a world map on a wall and was greeted by a young student.

Morrill, Auburn’s assistant superintendent, said staff would again be encouraged to stop strangers in the halls. Ultimately, he would like to see the entryway redesigned so office personnel have a better view of people coming in.

“We’re occupying schools that were built in a much different era,” he said.

Jay High School also proved less secure. Six months ago, a reporter was on the grounds for five minutes before someone stopped him. Last week, it took 20 minutes.

At one point, while he was checking the side doors, a teacher offered to let him in through a locked door. She never asked who he was.


Later, as he wandered through the halls, a couple of teachers said hello. One student asked if he smoked.

Superintendent Robert Wall said Jay plans to install a buzzer system and swipe cards soon.

“We’ve still got to work on these things,” he said.

At the Department of Education, Kastuck was disturbed to learn that some schools performed well last fall and poorly six months later.

“I hope this was an anomaly on that day or something,” he said. “For the schools that slipped, there’s no excuse for that.”

The state plans to keep watch.

Soon the Department of Education will send school systems a checklist of things they can — and should — do to deal with emergencies. The department will also ask school leaders what kind of help they need most, whether it’s training or guidance or something else.

“We’re not losing sight of this,” Kastuck said. “It’s important enough; there’s no excuse. No one wants to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’”

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