Many Locks Failed in Lowell Schools

August 18, 2018 GMT

LOWELL -- A study that found a “remarkable” number of work orders for broken doors in Lowell Public Schools has some School Committee members concerned about district safety.

“When we talk about school safety one of the simple things is a door. Does a door lock in the building?” said Mayor William Samaras. “If we don’t have that -- to talk about other things -- why bother?”

The report from the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management released last month reviewed city and school infrastructure needs and made recommendations.

In the past three years, the city has spent $17,629 in contractual services on repairs to doors and their locking mechanisms, according to the report. Examples of issues described in the repair requests include: “fire doors do not open,” “corridor fire doors partially or fully nonfunctional” and “panic hardware in disrepair.”

The report recommended an assessment of all interior and exterior doors and locking mechanisms in the district.

“Given nationwide concerns about school safety at the present time, it is unacceptable to have doors that do not lock properly and/or emergency exit doors that do not open or are otherwise nonfunctional,” the report read.

City Manager Eileen Donoghue said she has not received any specific communication from the district regarding doors, but said fire, building and health inspectors are going through every building in the weeks before school as they do every year.

“Our operating procedure is to have work done and issues addressed, before they’re opening,” she said.

If there are problems with the doors, she said the city, which handles building repairs and maintenance, will address them.

“There’s no health or safety issue whatsoever,” she said.

Currently a consultant is reviewing city and school buildings to develop a feasibility study of maintenance needs, Donoghue said.

At the meeting Wednesday night, School Committee member Gerry Nutter proposed responding to the study’s finding by requesting the city fully staff fire stations located near schools “until proper repairs” have been made.

School Committee member Robert Hoey Jr. said fully staffing the Fire Department would be nice -- as would having police officers at every school -- but probably not financially possible.

“I think it’s a beautiful motion if he could squeeze somewhere that we put a live policeman -- a real policeman -- in front of every one of our schools with an AR-15,” Hoey said. “I want that. ... Can we afford it? I don’t think so.”

Nutter said he was frustrated and concerned a request he brought forward last month to perform an assessment of all school doors district had not resulted in a report.

“School is about to open in a couple weeks,” Nutter said. “We have no reports, no additional information from the city.”

School Committee member Connie Martin said she would also be interested in an update on the issue.

Samaras said “a lot” is being done on the city side and suggested inviting officials from the police and fire department to speak about school safety at a future meeting, possibly in September.

Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin told the committee during the meeting that an extensive safety assessment of the district was conducted in 2016.

“Although it’s two years old, some of the things that showed up in the other report are there,” she said.

Durkin suggested reviewing this report in executive session.

“When we’re talking about our facilities we want to ensure our facilities are as safe as they possibly can be,” she said. “And we also don’t want to air some of the concerns publicly, because we want to make sure our children are safe.”

The topic, raised by Nutter, was one in a series of motions discussed at the meeting Wednesday requesting changes or increased support from the city regarding maintenance.

“I know money is tight, I understand that, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to service our kids,” Nutter said.

Hoey pushed back on these requests saying maintenance of school buildings falls to the city, not the School Committee.

“I’m afraid we’re maybe moving too fast,” he said. “And let the city manager do her job, because she’s doing a fine job. It’s going to take some time.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins