Mary Robvais, the longtime principal of Dufrocq Elementary, keeps in her office an old photograph of her school taken in 1923, soon after the school opened.
The Baton Rouge elementary school, which would undergo a $20 million renovation 86 years later, was built in a bygone era when most children walked to schools that were regarded as unquestioned safe havens for children.
Any lingering innocence of that sort was shattered on Dec. 14 when a man blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., murdering 20 children and six adults. The mass shooting has sparked a still raging national debate about how best to keep children in school safe.
School officials have held community forums at five schools around Baton Rouge over the past two weeks to get people’s thoughts on what best to do to improve school security.
Prior to its renovations, Dufrocq was typical of schools built decades ago — the East Baton Rouge Parish school system is filled with such schools — with few modern safety features. The 2009 renovations at Dufrocq suggest the kind of changes many older public schools are likely to undergo to try to protect the safety of children in the future.
Thanks to past federal grants, the school system has already modernized how it handles security. The school system has a Web service that it uses to maintain school-level crisis management plans, provide information and training to school employes and to monitor whether schools are conducting required drills.
Those who attended the forums learned about the training, drills and other ways educators prepare themselves to deal with dangerous incidents.
School officials are also examining the cost and usefulness of steps already in use by other school districts, including permanent metal detectors, replacing older security cameras and adding new ones, installing buzz-in doors at school entrances and paying for school resource officers at every school.
The renovations at Dufrocq helped bring that old school into the modern age.
Robvais, who took over as principal in the 1990s, remembers when she had no security cameras at Dufrocq, and it was an open campus that was easily accessible from the outside.
“We had quite a few doors, and they wouldn’t lock from the inside,” she recalled.
Now, Robvais keeps a constant watch on what’s going through cameras that feed into her office computer, allowing her to look all over her school in real time.
She needs the cameras because Dufrocq is much bigger than it used to be. The renovations doubled both school’s square footage and its enrollment.
As with most public schools, visitors are supposed to check in at the office before visiting a classroom, but with such an open campus it was hard to police.
Now, the entry area is much different. Visitors can wait in cushioned chairs. The room is decked out in a swampy decor in keeping with the school’s unofficial name “Crawfish Bayou” — the students renamed the school a few years as part of a schoolwide Microsociety program.
The entry area also prevents intruders from further access to the school. Enclosed in glass, visitors have to be let in to get beyond the modern crash doors.
The pre-renovated Dufrocq had at least one serious incident that can be partially traced to the days before it had secure entrances.
In the fall of 2006, a 20-year-old man claimed he repeatedly snuck onto the campus and went into Dufrocq’s restroom, a problem that was only discovered when an 11-year-old student reported being grabbed by the man and inappropriately touched through the clothes, police reported at the time.
Robvais said these days she drills repeatedly with students and staff members and tries to think of every possible way something can go wrong.
“You’ve just got to be aware, be in the know and not let anything slip by,” she said.