Inadequate fences leave schools vulnerable

Three unfenced elementary schools may soon have another barrier to entry.

The school board is reassessing security after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. Officials plan to consider adding fences around the campuses to match the other 19 elementary schools in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

It's part of a larger school board directive to consider ways of forcing all elementary schools' foot traffic to front offices, where visitors must check in, said Tim Marsh, the district's administrative director of facilities support services.

"In the wake of things like the Sandy Hook tragedy, we have been deeply, deeply affected," Adams Elementary School Principal Gabriel Del Real told a crowd of parents gathered Thursday night at the campus to discuss options.

The school board has already instituted security changes, such as revamped drills and required identification for all staff, but Del Real said that doesn't address a day-to-day concern.

"It's not that we have people coming in as active shooters," he said. "It's that we have the accidental visitors coming in, presenting some kind of risk."

His is one of three schools that are partially or wholly unfenced, leaving little barrier to the campus other than warning signs.

Victoria Elementary School, on Costa Mesa's Westside, is unfenced on one side; Adams in Mesa Verde, on two sides; and Andersen Elementary School in Newport Beach, on all sides.

Adams' students have encountered strangers in or on their way to restrooms, and teachers must spend time monitoring the school's borders and asking anyone who wanders in to leave, Del Real said.

"We are technically a closed campus, even though physically, we're open," he said. "The problem is people accidentally visit us in the middle of the day, unknowingly."

Some parents approved of fencing, often citing wandering dogs or humans coming from the public park that Adams abuts.

Marysol Ortega said she's worried about her fourth-grade daughter leaving class to go to the restroom alone.

"There's no staff watching that child, meanwhile, while class is in session," she said. "My worry is what if this little girl gets raped in the restroom?"

Other neighbors and parents said the ambience of an open school is a prime characteristic of their Mesa Verde neighborhood.

Some worried that a fence would limit access to the school field, which the public can use when Adams isn't in session.

They said the benefit wasn't worth the costs.

"I'll tell you after 30 years of police work, fences don't keep aggressive people out," retired Costa Mesa Police Officer Clay Epperson said. "I really don't want to see a fence at all. I don't believe it will add to security one iota."

Some attendees suggested fencing Adams at the edge of the blacktop — excluding the field — much like Mariners Elementary School in Newport Beach or Newport Elementary School, which uses the public beach as its playground.

Teachers in the audience said a barrier is useful for keeping students in, not just keeping intruders out.

Students can simply leave campus if they're not constantly monitored, said special education teacher Anna Strause, adding that her autistic students may not have awareness to avoid a busy street if they run from her.

"Being in that footrace with a student is the most terrifying experience a teacher can have," she said.

Victoria and Andersen will also weigh in on fencing before Marsh develops proposals and brings possible plans and costs to the school board.

Del Real said he will convey opinions to the trustees, who will have the final say at a yet-to-be announced meeting.

"We don't want to do anything that will change the aesthetics unless we feel it's appropriate to address our top priority," Del Real said, explaining that student safety is that top priority.

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

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