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Newtown anniversary: NBC reporters gain access to some schools with ease

On the first anniversary of the fatal school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., NBC's Jeff Rossen investigates just how secure some schools are.

NBC reporters were able to access school buildings and walk around at several New York-area schools, two NBC investigations have found, raising questions about school security as the anniversary of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., approaches.

"Today" National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen was able to enter one New Jersey school without giving a name. Unescorted, he went looking for the main office, per school policy. As he looked, he walked past several classrooms with kids, stopping at one to ask a teacher for directions. No one asked who he was, or what he was doing there. For two minutes, he walked through the halls, and was only stopped once he arrived at the office.

The school’s PTA told NBC the findings were a “wake-up” call.

“This is incredibly problematic,” said safety consultant Sal Lifrieri, a former director of security at the New York City Office of Emergency Management, after watching the video. “Something like this, two minutes of not being challenged, it’s just too much harm you could have caused if you really had intent.”

For complete coverage of the Newtown anniversary, click here.

At the other four schools he visited, however, he was asked for identification and kept away from children and classrooms.

He was buzzed in after identifying himself at one school, and was escorted straight to the principal’s office. At another, a guard intercepted him outside the building and asked for identification.

But in New York City, Jonathan Vigliotti of WNBC was able to walk in to seven out of 10 schools without being challenged. “I had a harder time getting into my friend’s apartment building,” said Vigliotti.

At one school he was able to bypass the metal detector, roam the hallways, and enter a gym full of kids. Approached later, the guard at the metal detector was surprised to learn Vigliotti hadn’t signed in. “Wow,” said the guard. “I thought you were a teacher.”

The New York City Police Department, which trains public school guards, said it would investigate after it was contacted by NBC.

The city’s school chancellor watched the incident on video, and said more training was needed.

Said Chancellor Dennis Walcott, “When we have probably around 135,000 staff that works with us, we are going to have issues where some people need to be trained and trained better. And some people that don’t need to be in the system.”

While school safety experts say many schools have taken steps to increase building security by installing buzzer and intercom systems, surveillance cameras, and alarms on doors and entrances, security gaps still remain.

“It’s not just a matter of putting in technology,” said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit organization that conducts safety assessments for school districts across the country. “Where we’re often running into problems is with training."

  • Questions parents can ask about their elementary school’s safety
  • Are all exterior doors locked during the school day?
  • What is the procedure for allowing visitors into the school building? Is there a buzzer? Is there an escort? Are visitors required to present valid photo ID?
  • Is the staff trained on school access and visitor screening procedures? Are staff instructed to stop and report all visitors?
  • Is the staff trained on techniques to help them spot and react to potentially dangerous people?
  • Are all staffers required to wear a photo id card? Are visitors required to wear time sensitive badges?

Schools have hired Safe Havens to conduct “penetration tests” to determine how easily school procedures can be bypassed. He says one problem that persists is with school employees propping open doors in the middle of the school day.

“Access control is only as good as the weakest link to the building,” said Dorn. “If you don’t have people trained to not put rocks in the door, even with all the technology, we’ve still been able to defeat the access controls.”

Dorn says parents who feel inconvenienced by access control policies are often more motivated to complain to school officials, whereas parents with concerns about security tend to remain silent.

“School security is heavily based on what the parents want…if you look at your child’s school, and you don’t think it’s secure enough, you should express that,” said Dorn. 

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