D-11: Burglary suspect got in school door that didn't latch

May 3, 2011

A side school door that didn’t close all the way, and thus did not lock, allowed an unarmed burglary suspect to dash through Madison Elementary School last week trying to evade police, said Elaine Naleski, spokeswoman for Colorado Springs School District 11.

“Apparently someone went out the door and it didn’t shut and latch,” she said.

The D-11 Emergency Crisis Operations Team on Monday reviewed the incident to figure out what needed to be done to prevent a repeat.

“There’s not a school district in the country where the same thing couldn't have happened,” said Larry Borland, president of the Colorado Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. He also leads the national organization, and is Academy School District 20 chief of security.

“Schools are public places and there is a lot of movement,” he said. “Most teachers are pretty security-aware, especially at the elementary level.”

On April 27, a burglary suspect ran through Madison in central Colorado Springs, prompting the school to go on emergency lockdown. Police officers arrested the unarmed 27-year-old after he left the school.

Like every elementary and middle school in District 11, Madison has a “buzz-in” system and the man was not allowed in when he tried to open the front door.

Most parents picking up students at Madison that day said they felt the situation was handled as well as could be expected, although it was scary.

One mother said the entire school had practiced a lockdown just a week earlier, so students and teachers were familiar with procedures.

Naleski said the suspect was in the school for about a minute — the time it took him to run in the door to the right of the office that leads to the gym and cafeteria and back out a different door.

It’s good that it was not human error that left the door unlocked, but the solution is harder, Naleski said.

Facilities staff will check to see if anything can be adjusted to ensure the door closes, she said, but they don’t want to make it so heavy that it would smash kids’ fingers. A reminder and warning to check to make sure the door is fully shut will be posted.

District 11 security operations commander Jim Hastings said staff at Madison are generally good at keeping doors secure, based on regular checks by the security team.

While it is possible to equip school doors with alarms to alert staff that it isn’t closed and locked, such systems are very costly, Borland said.

“It would probably drive you nuts,” he added.

A Douglas County high school has such an alarm on one door, a typical measure to protect a door that is a frequent trouble spot or if it leads to something like a computer lab.

“As long as we recruit teachers and students from the human race, there will be mistakes,” Borland said, adding that air pressure can also prevent a door from fully closing and locking.

Colorado Springs police officers do not change tactics when facing suspected criminals who have strayed near schools, said Sgt. Darrin Abbink, police spokesman.

“If a person is a threat to a school, they’re a threat to other people in a regular neighborhood or a grocery store or whatever they might be near,” Abbink said. “So the techniques, the tactics they don’t change any.”

What does change, however, is dispatchers notify schools when police suspect a threat — such as a man with a gun or a burglar on the loose — is nearby. It is up to school administration to decide whether to lock down a building, Abbink said.

Last week, a school resource officer at Doherty High School heard the commotion near Madison  on the radio and contacted D-11 officials.

Contact the writer at 636-0162.
Gazette Reporter Jakob Rodgers contributed to this story.

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