Middle school beefs up security

Steps taken after girl says worker molested her in restroom

January 11, 2008|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

A day after a sixth-grader at Perry Hall Middle School accused a construction worker of sexually assaulting her in a school restroom, the principal said that renovation work has been curtailed while a separate entrance to the work area is created.

"We're trying to make [the school] as secure as we can," said Allen H. Zink, principal of the 1,500-student school. "I'm confident that we'll do what needs to be done to make sure kids stay safe."

Baltimore County police said yesterday that they have identified the man who the 11-year-old girl said assaulted her but have made no arrest as their investigation continues.

"We're trying to verify information," Cpl. Mike Hill, a police spokesman, said outside the school shortly after classes began yesterday morning.

Zink said information from one of 18 surveillance cameras helped officials identify the man.

Hill said the man is not being called a suspect but rather "a person involved in the case."

About 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, the girl reported to the principal's office that a man had followed her into the restroom between classes and sexually assaulted her, police said. The girl said she fought off the man, ran out of the restroom and reported the attack to a school resource officer - one of the county police officers stationed at schools - Hill said.

Hill said yesterday that police are weighing the information the girl has provided, the man's account and physical evidence as part of a "verification process" before deciding what to do next.

"We have to remember she has been traumatized," he said. "We want to make sure we have everything right."

At the school yesterday morning, some parents seemed apprehensive but said they felt comfortable bringing their children to school because of the increased police presence and additional staff members in the hallways during class changes.

Also, Zink said, students will use the "buddy system" if they leave classrooms.

Many questioned the decision to continue renovation work during school hours.

Crystal Curtis of Perry Hall - whose son, James Curtis, 11, is in sixth grade - said she thinks Wednesday's incident is isolated but that the work should stop until the criminal accusations have been resolved and alternative renovation plans are made.

"Maybe contractors shouldn't be in the school during the day," said Crystal Curtis, 53, who added that after school and weekends might be preferable.

Zink said some phases of the two-year renovation, which started last year, have been completed during weekends and holidays. But not all construction can be limited to those times, he said. The renovation is expected to be finished by the start of next school year, he said.

"Inevitably, you get to a phase where you can't isolate the work," said Zink, who added that 20 to 30 workers are at the school. "But we're looking at building more barriers," he said.

A separate entrance to the work zone will be constructed by replacing a window with a door, Zink said. Any worker who doesn't use that entrance during school hours will be barred from the project, he said.

Calls yesterday to James Ancel Inc., the contractor overseeing the renovation, were not returned.

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National Safe Schools Center, applauded plans for the separate work-zone entrance.

But school systems must do more to investigate anyone who plans to work in a school, he said.

"There's a growing concern to not only do appropriate background checks for teachers and staff, but also volunteer members. But now we have this new dimension - contractors and other service providers," Stephens said. "It's fairly well established that oftentimes some of these workers can intimidate and bother staff and students."

He said he advises school systems to develop contracts that require separate entrances and include clear expectations about worker supervision.

Baltimore County schools spokeswoman Kara Calder could not confirm yesterday whether contractors conduct background checks on their workers.

Calder said workers are expected to be closely supervised and that there should be "minimal intrusion into the school day."

Yesterday, Crystal Curtis reminded her son, James, to be aware of his surroundings.

"Me and my friends always walk together," he said.

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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