Unlocked: Failing Security at DCPS

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The DCPS second grade teacher knows the work order for the computerized lock on her classroom door was marked “completed.” But she doesn’t trust it.

It was complete on the first day of school last year, when it malfunctioned again and locked out her entire class. She had to turn to her fellow teachers for materials. Eventually, she was forced to teach 22 students in a hastily found empty spot in an otherwise crowded school.

Over a year and many work orders later, this teacher now resorts to holding the lock open with duct tape to ensure she won’t have to spend yet another day of school locked out of her own classroom.

What will she do if she needs to lock it in an emergency? “Rip it off,” she said.

That precarious possibility is what a single teacher faces at this one DCPS elementary school. But the issue of malfunctioning locks is far more widespread, extending from computerized locks to traditional mechanical locks in multiple school buildings.

And malfunctioning locks are more than a nuisance. Lockdowns are common in schools in DC, usually because of some dangerous or criminal activity happening nearby. However, a “lockdown” in a school with broken door locks can hardly be effective. 

But while DCPS runs the schools, they do not manage or repair the school buildings. That is the responsibility of the Department of General Services (DGS) which maintains District real estate, including DCPS schools. School staff issue a work order for broken locks and submit it to DGS to be addressed.

These work orders are being met with “band-aid” fixes, say parents and teachers. Many parents wonder if their children will be safe when they are dropped off in the morning.

The first installment of this two-part Capital Community News investigation of door security at DCPS elementary schools, funded by a grant from Spotlight DC: Capital City Fund for Investigative Journalism, examines both the extent of the issue and efforts underway to address it.

Unlockable
The issue is three-fold. Some doors do not have keys. Some mechanical locks do not function. In addition, computerized locks installed during modernization have proven unreliable. In some cases, door locks do not engage, whereas other locks do not unlock.

As of Sept. 21, lock and door issues made up 14 percent of all open DCPS work orders, the highest portion of all work order types. In the same data set provided to DC Council for an October 12 hearing regarding work order integrity, DGS reported there were 758 open lock and door work orders and only 30 of those were “high priority.” The highest number of outstanding work orders for locks were in Ward 6, where 173 door issues were outstanding, followed by Wards 8 and 4, with 97 each; and Ward 7 with 95 incomplete door and lock work orders.

To be high priority, the issue must be an interior door impacting daily operations or programming. These also include doors that should be secured for safety reasons, such as an electrical or technology closet not securing properly, according to DGS.

The remaining 728 open work orders are “routine,” meaning DGS defines these as interior doors with “minimal risk for intrusion.” Those include teachers lounges and interior closets.

Classroom doors do not appear in any of the three definitions.

As of Sept. 30, DGS reported 1,708 resolved lock and door work orders. Though these work orders say “completed,” school communities say the issue is ongoing.

Scott Goldstein, executive director of the DC education advocacy organization EmpowerEd (www.weareempowered.org), hears about the door and lock issue routinely from teachers.

“It just seems like a major vulnerability,” Goldstein said. “…[teachers] are concerned that if there was an emergency, like an active gunman situation or something and they weren’t able to actually close off their room, how terrifying that would be.”

Computerized Locks

When DCPS schools undergo modernization, DGS, as the facility operator, replaces old mechanical locks with computerized ones that are part of an integrated electronic system that both conducts video surveillance and controls interior and exterior access. Vision Security Solutions has served as a subcontractor on at least one of these installations, due to their expertise with the security software and video surveillance.

School interior doors are opened and closed using a FOB. At the end of each day though, all of the locks are engaged through a centralized system. Even those with a FOB associated with the lock cannot disengage it.

The new electronic locks have posed an array of problems. They run on batteries, but there is no display for when the power is running low. The locks simply stop working. Generally, this results in a work order being placed into the DGS system.

DCPS has referred computerized lock repairs to Vision in at least one school, as an approved IT contractor and locksmith. The company sends a tech to change the battery or to diagnose any additional issues hindering the mechanism, say teachers.

After the second-grade teacher had spent her school day coming up with a lesson plan with no access to her materials, Vision arrived to change the batteries in her computerized lock. They marked the work order “complete,” but it was still not functioning correctly, said the teacher.

“I come in the second day, and it’s locked again because somebody closed the door when I said to leave it open, but they closed the door and it locked so I was locked out again,” the teacher said. “And then we had to wait another three hours for somebody to come out and fix the door.”

When the lock to her classroom remained engaged despite efforts to unlock it with the correct FOB, she taped over the lock in a way that it wouldn’t engage.

Vision did not respond to attempts to contact them for comment.

Unmodernized schools do not face these issues since their locks are mechanical. However, there are similar unresolved problems with the traditional lock and key.

Mechanical Locks
For the DCPS schools still waiting for their turn in the modernization line, mechanical locks are used in each classroom door. These doors use a traditional lock and key.

In her walk-throughs of schools, Eboni-Rose Thompson, DC School Board of Education president and Ward 7 representative, discovered cases where door handles were not working properly. In these cases, Thompson said the onsite foremen did not have the appropriate tools to repair them.

It is discouraging, Thompson said, to witness the custodial foremen lacking the proper training or necessary equipment to solve these situations.

“I’ve heard that DGS is looking into creating some type of loaner program for schools to be able to access some of the tools they need for frequent types of requests like this,” Thompson said.

This is a step in the right direction, Thompson said, along with providing training so the custodial staff can quickly address these security issues.

“I would be encouraged to see DGS think about how do we empower and support people in the schools to address some of the immediate concerns and not relying on external contractors for those things, which also seems to be something they’re interested in.”

In some cases, teachers simply do not have keys to their classroom doors. Thompson discovered replacing the keys can take weeks due to the bureaucratic DCPS approval process.

“Because you want to make sure that the people who are approved to have keys have keys, you can’t just have anyone and everyone with that access,” Thompson said. “And so that often takes much longer than anyone would anticipate.”

The current work order system does not give schools a time estimate for when they can expect issues to be resolved. Thompson said the response times she has heard from schools varies greatly. She would like to see DGS give schools a time estimate to keep everyone accountable.

School Safety
On the topic of accountability, former Ward 6 Representative to the State Board of Education (SBOE) Joe Weedon finds a problem with the lack of public data surrounding this issue.

In 2022, DC Council passed an amendment to Law 24-270, called the Protecting Security-Sensitive Dashboard Data Temporary Amendment Act of 2022, which pulled work orders relating to security off of the public work order dashboard. Work orders that relate to campus locks and doors or broken windows which have “the potential to impair lockdown of a campus space” are now exempt from having to be public.

A spokesperson from the office of Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D), who chairs the council committee that oversees DGS, said there’s a concern that putting an explicit list of where the District’s public school security vulnerabilities are would bring unintentional harm to teachers and students.

But studies have shown that most school shootings are perpetuated by insiders of the targeted school, including employees and students. A study by the Government Accountability Offices (GAO) of school shootings from 2009-2019 found that 65 percent of shootings were committed by students or people within the school community — only 12 percent were perpetuated from outside the community, although 19 percent were unknown. That means that those most likely to endanger students are likely to be aware of deficiencies in security.

The spokesperson from George’s office said research like this is helpful, adding that the DC Council “does not want to undercut that.” George has raised the issue of responding to work orders with urgency to DGS and DCPS internally and in response, DGS has raised their output, the staffer added.

The public doesn’t need to know the exact locations of broken locks, but they do need to know that there is an issue with classroom security in the District’s schools, said Weedon.

“I get the safety concerns, but I think that’s a red herring to keep people from knowing,” Weedon said.

Legislative efforts are underway at the DC Council to address the situation.

Key to the Problem?
On Dec. 5, DC Council passed Bill 25-218, the “Work Order Integrity Amendment Act of 2023.” Introduced in March by Councilmember Janeese George, Chair of the DC Council Committee on Facilities and Family Services, the bill “requires the Department of General Services Facilities Management division receive affirmative approval from a school-level staff member before marking maintenance or repair requests as complete in the Department’s internal work order system.”

The aim of the bill is to mitigate the amount of work orders that are currently being marked as “complete” from being band-aid fixes or not being fixed at all.

Director of DGS Delano Hunter said he supports “the spirit” of the proposed legislation at an Oct. 12 DC Council hearing on the legislation. But he is concerned the legislation would burden school personnel, corrupt the data DGS examines and harm the businesses contracted by DCPS and DGS, who are paid upon completion of the work order.

Hunter prefers more time be given to the strategies recently put into place. At the hearing, he provided details of the FIRST and LAST teams, which will remedy the problem the legislation addresses.

“The Facility Intake Response Service Team (FIRST) monitors the ‘Completed and Not Closed’ work order stage through reports,” Hunter testified. “This monitoring assists work team support groups such as the newly created Liaison for Accountability, Service, and Trust (LAST Team) that are laser-focused on closing the work order lifecycle by supporting work team supervisors and craftspersons with data input.”

The legislation is expected to pass in December. Councilmember George is confident the council and DGS can work together to solve the current issue with work orders in DCPS, she stated at the hearing.

Ely Ross, DCPS’s chief operating officer, and Shilpa Khatri, DCPS deputy chief of Schools Facilities and Planning, declined to comment for this story.

For elementary school parent Adam Kron, security is a point of anxiety when he drops his daughter off at school. He wonders what would happen if the lock in her classroom door broke when the school was in a state of emergency.

Kron, who testified at the Oct. 12. hearing, remains concerned that DGS is not taking seriously the full efforts that the issues deserve. There’s a certain amount of trust that comes with parents dropping their kids off at school, he said.

“It’s vastly important. DGS has this trust, and they are responsible for taking care of our facilities,” Kron said. “If they are unable to do that in a reliable and transparent way, that’s just a violation of that trust.”

Parents are not informed about security issues, but when they do express concerns, they are often dismissed. Weedon said when he was in conversation with DCPS and DGS about one modernization, he brought up the need for school security best practices. One option that comes with computerized locks is the ability to “lockdown” classrooms with the press of a single button in the administrative office.

He was told that “was too expensive” and it is “not a high enough priority to incorporate in the modernizations going forward.”

Weedon worries the builders and architects are not considering security as much as they need to be when thinking through school modernizations. “That should be thought of in the plan from the architects, and it’s not.”

Weedon says much of this is about the budget. Cheap and easy fixes result in repeat work orders, because there is not enough money to make needed replacements. He cites the example of an exterior door at Eastern High School that can be opened with the right “jiggle.” It often is, setting off an alarm that has been subsequently disabled, doubling security issues. The door, he said, has been repaired eight times in seven years.

These failures say a lot about the city’s priorities over all, Weedon said. The responsibility falls on DCPS and DGS. “But where does the buck stop? It stops with the Mayor.”

The issue of locks and doors in DCPS is definitely one on the mind of Mayor Muriel Bowser as well as the council, the spokesperson for Councilmember George said. This is reflected in their $1.1 million proposed and sustained budget allotment to repair efforts in FY24.

In addition, the council passed Act 25-172, Fiscal Year 2024 Budget Support Emergency Act of 2023, which outlined in subtitle D “School Security and Transparency” a new comprehensive assessment of certain security objectives, including locks and doors, on all campuses at least once per year.

Parents and teachers won’t sleep well until the issues are resolved, said EmpowerEd’s Goldstein. “When DGS doesn’t get around to fixing a broken lock on a door, it may be another item on their long to-do list,” he told DC Council, “but it gives that classroom teacher nightmares every night thinking about what might happen if an intruder were to enter the school.”

The grade two teacher who opened our story agrees. One day, she worries, there might be an incident. Then she will have to rip that duct tape band aid off, locking her door permanently.

On that day, the teacher can only hope whatever trouble comes into her school is on the other side.

This story has been updated to clarify the role of Vision Security Systems in the installation and repair of electronic locks.

This article was supported by a grant from the Spotlight DC: Capitol City Fund for Investigative Journalism. Spotlight DC encourages the submission for proposals by independent journalists. For more information, visit www.spotlightdc.org.