This morning, I read about a 5-year-old girl who was taken from her classroom by a total stranger pretending to be a parent without a single school employee realizing that there was a problem. The child was thankfully found safe and sound, and returned to her mother. However, questions about school security and safety were immediately and rightfully raised. I can freely admit that my first reaction was anger with the school. I looked at my husband and said, “How the hell does this happen?”
That righteous anger felt like a natural reaction. It was easy to generate. It was easy to say, “Receptionists should be checking every individual’s photo ID when they come to pick up a child!” Consider my foot stomped for emphasis.
Then I thought about my own situation, and just how realistic I was being when it comes to schools and safety. The honest truth, I’m not being very realistic at all. The sad fact of the matter is that horrible things can happen, and we have to realize that schools are doing the best they can to take care of our kids.
At both my daughter’s school and her daycare, there’s a buzzer to enter the building and only one door for visitors to use. At both buildings, that door is frequently held open for me by another parent walking in and out or a teacher who happens to see me. If I was interested in coming or going from a school without the secretary knowing, it would be as simple as walking in when there’s a decent chance for foot traffic. Good manners would do the rest.
Then there’s those pesky sign-in sheets and the idea that a receptionist will ask every adult for photo ID. Currently, my daughter has approximately 10 people on her list of adults with clearance to pick her up from school or daycare. Myself, my husband and her biological father are all the standards who routinely pick her up. My parents have both helped out by picking her up on occasion. Then there are emergency scenarios, where my husband’s parents and our siblings all might be handling school pick-up. Throw in a new employee unfamiliar with our family, and there would be ample opportunity for someone to slip in and say, “Oh, her mother was supposed to call and tell you guys I was coming?”
We’re talking about a single student out of the hundreds that these schools care for. There are countless people who could be picking kids up at any time. For my own child such a large family, it could be easy to assume that I might have forgotten one sibling or friend who might help us out if anything happened. Really, if a person walks in and acts like they know what they’re doing, I doubt many people would question them, whether their name is on the darn list or not.
I’m not saying that it’s right. I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be held accountable or trusted at all. But I do believe that we need to be realistic. We need to accept that there are tons of people coming in and out of these buildings every day. And the real reason that we don’t hear about more of these types of abductions is not because most schools have amazingly wonderful security. It’s because people don’t often think to steal children away from their school in the middle of the day.
Just like with any and every crime, a persistent or thoughtful criminal can normally find away around the security that’s set in place. (There’s a whole genre of movies about this concept.) Schools are not made to be fortresses. They hopefully employ common sense and thoughtfulness to keep their charges safe. They should have coherent safety procedures in place and they should make sure that those rules are followed.
But I don’t know what’s to be gained from throwing our hands in the air and asking, “How the hell did some random woman get into that school?” I bet if I tried, I could go to any one of my nieces’ or nephews’ schools and with very little trouble, pick them up and take them home.
If we want to change this, we’re going to have to put a lot of thought and effort into ways that we can better equip schools to handle such security. Schools will need more than a tired, overwhelmed secretary trying to answer phones, file immunization paperwork, record attendance, and put together the weekly newsletter, all while monitoring every non-employee who enters the building.
Our education system is already strapped for money and cutting corners wherever it can. We can’t continue to slash their budgets, demand constantly improving test scores, and ask that they focus time and money turning schools into high-security institutions. Something has to give. And parents have to think about where their priorities are.