Some schools chain doors during day City fire officials say practice is illegal and a safety hazard

'Troubles me greatly'

Principals say action protects students from outside dangers

January 23, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Forced to choose between creating a fire hazard or opening their schools to the violence of the streets, some Baltimore principals are chaining and padlocking all but a few of their schoolhouse doors.

They have drawn citations and fines from Baltimore fire officials, who for years have warned them to stop the practice.

The Fire Department has cited five city public school principals for locking exit doors in the past eight months, and three have been fined.

"We have to consider the safety of the children if there is a fire," said Battalion Chief Bill Martin of the city Fire Department.

The Fire Department said that for years it would inspect a school, find chains on doors and cut them off. "As soon as we got out of the building, they would put the chains back up," he said.

With little extra money in their budgets to buy expensive new doors or to modify existing ones, principals have taken the cheap route of using chains and padlocks, ignoring the fire code.

School officials say locking the doors is against school policy. But the administration has not surveyed schools to see how many principals are locking doors and has made only patchwork attempts to find a solution.

During its recent crackdown, fire officials issued citations toprincipals at five schools: Frederick Douglass, Patterson, Southern, and Northern high schools and Harlem Park Elementary.

Four of the citations were issued between Oct. 28, 1997, and Nov. 24, 1997. School and fire officials say the problem is not limited to the five schools, but they do not know the extent of the problem.

'We are wrong'

"When we do this [chain doors] we are wrong as administrators," said Rose Backus-Davis, principal of Frederick Douglass High School, who paid a $70 fine for chaining some of her school's doors and is on probation for ignoring school fire safety policy. But she said her 52-year-old school has 24 exterior doors and plenty of places for unwelcome visitors to hide. Unlike more modern schools, she does not have panic bars on her doors -- bars that students can push from the inside to get out while the doors are locked on the outside.

Her doors must be either locked or unlocked.

If they are unlocked, anyone can enter from the street: a member of a gang looking for revenge against a student, a drug pusher, a parent fighting a custody battle or a criminal looking for refuge.

"I am not afraid of my students leaving school as much as I am people coming in to do harm to students," Davis said. "What am I going to do? If school is supposed to be a safe haven, then it should be."

Several weeks before Christmas, Davis said, she saw an armed man running toward her school, being chased by two city police officers. The man was headed toward a set of doors, she said, but was apprehended before he could enter the building. What would have happened, she thought, if the man had gotten into the school?

But Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. points out the danger of chaining or padlocking doors. "If there is a fire, they are locked in there. There could be kids stampeding toward a door and not get out."

'Fear of fires'

The principal of Southern High School, Darline Lyles, said she does not usually keep her doors locked because the neighborhood around the school is not threatening. She said two doors had been inadvertently left locked after school opened the day fire officials arrived. "I have a terrific fear of fires," she said. "It was an oversight."

Lyles said she gets to school early every day to unlock the doors herself.

Patterson officials said they are keeping their doors unlocked.

Principals at the other schools cited did not return phone calls.

Fire officials said violations appear to have declined since the department began issuing citations.

But the dilemma for the schools remains.

"We need an investigation and an immediate response if our schools are going to be safe," said school board member Dorothy Siegel. "I don't know the answer, but what you are saying troubles me greatly."

One solution, according to fire and school administrators, is a magnetic locking system that can be installed on existing doors. The doors are kept locked from the inside and outside unless the fire alarm is activated or a smoke detector goes off. Then all the doors unlock automatically.

The doors also can be put on a timer so that they are all open at times when students come and go. But the system costs $1,000 per door and most large high schools in the city have about 44 doors, said Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for city schools.

Last summer, the system was installed on all doors at Northern High School to see how it worked. Today, 14 of the doors have been vandalized and no longer work on the system, Pyatt said. Installing panic bars is also expensive: $400 a door. Panic bars are not a total solution because students can in let friends who don't belong in the school.

Doors or textbooks

Several school principals, including Davis, have requested the magnetic locking system. Because school principals control their budgets, they could decide to buy panic bars or a magnetic locking system. But Davis said spending tens of thousands of dollars on doors would mean not buying textbooks or not training teachers. "I just don't have the money to buy those doors. I just don't," she said.

Siegel said cost should not be a deterrent to solving the problem. "We need to know that our schools are safe," she said. "We have no choice."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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