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Majority of Alabama schools don’t adequately maintain security systems, state fire marshal says

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The “vast majority” of public schools in Alabama have fallen behind on maintaining safety and security systems, State Fire Marshal Scott Pilgreen said Tuesday during a school safety meeting.

The School Safety Advisory Commission is trying to identify gaps in school safety. Its findings could shape bills during the 2024 legislative session.

While the commission was created in 2016, it sat dormant for years until being resurrected earlier this year by House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, and saw its last meeting center around treating trauma for students and school faculty.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on the inadequate maintenance of basic security and safety systems such as door locks, fire alarms and PA systems.

“All of the systems that are there as required by our minimum building fire codes, quite frankly, are not maintained in the vast majority of our schools; I’m not exaggerating, we see it,” Pilgreen said.

“I believe in the vast majority of shooting incidents, the perpetrator has come from within the school… in other words, that bad actor has been a student there, or they know the weak points. Whatever it is, we have to maintain the basic things that are there.”

Alabama State Fire Marshal Scott Pilgreen.

Pilgreen said staff at his office do routine checks across all of Alabama’s more than 1,400 public schools, and regularly find fire code violations such as hardware on exterior doors being in disrepair, often substituted with chains and padlocks.

“You talk to the leadership of the school, and you get a mixed bag; some of them are extremely apologetic and want to get on it quickly to get it fixed, (while) a lot (say) ‘we don’t have the money,’ and they want to point to the superintendent’s office,” he continued.

“In the past two months, in numerous school systems ranging from north Alabama to extreme south Alabama, we have put a number of schools on what we call a fire watch because their systems are down, and have been down. It’s a problem.”

Marshall explained that schools being placed on a fire watch can further tax schools’ already-stretched resources, as the order requires some school staff to patrol the school campus as a substitute for compromised security and safety systems.

“Quite frankly, I’m tired of my people going in and finding this problem reoccurring over and over again, because that’s what’s going to get our students and our staff in these schools in harm’s way quicker than anything,” he said.

Commission member Pamela Revels, a sheriff’s office sergeant and school resource officer in Lee County, said that in many cases of schools not addressing faulty security and safety systems, there was a lack of enforcement mechanisms to coerce them to do so.

“A lot of times it is the human factor that leaves our schools vulnerable, whether it’s not maintaining (security systems) or propping the door, so I think continuing to get the buy-in from staff, especially from the leadership down, is very important,” Revels said.

“I think from our perspective, we need a little bit more teeth if we find something that needs to be corrected. We’re doing the monitoring, we’re doing the walkthroughs, (but) if you say (something) needs to be fixed, and there’s nothing that makes them fix it, it’s going to stay broken.”

Commission member Proncey Robertson, a former State House representative from Trinity, pointed to a law passed in Tennessee earlier this year that introduced accountability measures to ensure exterior doors at schools remained locked while students were present, measures that include the ability to issue fines to building administrators.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, the chair of the commission, suggested she may be open to such a model to ensure school safety.

“The fine system that Tennessee is doing, I see that as at least a form of teeth, and I also find school systems to be compliant motivated; if they’re not safety motivated, they are compliant motivated,” Collins said.

School Safety Advisory Commission member Proncey Robertson (right) speaks to the commission chair Rep. Terri Collins (left).

Perhaps a more useful tool to ensure school safety, according to Dwight Satterfield, deputy superintendent for Decatur City Schools, was for the Legislature to provide funding strictly for school safety, as it had done to the tune of $40 million in the 2023 Education Trust Fund supplemental budget earlier this year.

“The best money that we have was that safety money designated to schools,” Satterfield said. “In my involvement across the state, I think you see more money being put into securing doors, replacing locks and air chambers than we have ever have.”

Satterfield added that when unrestricted money is given to schools, oftentimes those with fewer resources will prioritize things like fixing roofs or purchasing computers over repairing broken locks and exterior doors. The allocation of money to schools strictly for safety, he argued, was extraordinarily effective in seeing safety and security systems repaired.

Earlier this month, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he would sponsor a bill next year to require regular safety audits of school campuses.

The commission will eventually produce a report of its findings to deliver to Ledbetter, though Collins said there was no deadline for the commission to produce the report. Pilgreen said that whatever shape the report eventually took, it should include the widespread safety failings his office deals with on a regular basis.

“Whatever this commission ultimately reports back to the speaker, we need to have something in there that draws attention to this issue,” he said.

Both Collins and Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, told Alabama Daily News after the meeting that they would be open to supporting another one-time infusion of money strictly for school safety. That decision, however, will ultimately be up to the entire legislative body.

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