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BUFFALO SCHOOLS SEEKING TO CLOSE THE DOOR ON VIOLENT VISITORS

Nothing seemed suspicious when the woman enrolled her two children in a Buffalo city school earlier this year and showed a valid court order granting her temporary custody.

What she didn't show was another court order telling her to keep the children in Ohio, where their father lived.

So when the irate father appeared at school to reclaim his children, the mother sought help from relatives -- who arrived with baseball bats for weapons.

Not every custodial dispute that spills into city schools ends up in a melee involving the police, as that one did. But disgruntled parents are walking into schools more and more often -- 82 times last school year alone, according to officials -- to pick fights with former spouses or try to reach their estranged children.

And they are not the only intruders: Other trespassers commit an average of 55 crimes a year on district property, district officials say.

So the Buffalo School District is planning its first standardized school safety system for the district's school buildings, which now number more than 100.

The task is not going to be easy or cheap, said Bill Jackson, the district's director of safety. The cost could be $500,000 and may extend to more than 130 buildings.

"You take a school district like Amherst or West Seneca, and they've got six buildings," Jackson said. "There are 55 entrances to McKinley High School alone. So our problem is a lot different. A lot of our schools have buzzers now; some have TV cameras. We want something where we have one standardized operating system."

The district is soliciting proposals from security companies to design an overall system for controlling school entrances. Whatever plan is selected will probably involve the following features, said Paul J. Rebholz, the district's director of school plant operations:

A single public entrance at each building, monitored by a television camera, an intercom system and an electronic door release.

Alarms that will sound at all other doors if they are opened from the outside.

Electronic key-card systems at all employee entrances.

Some steps are being taken now: Beginning Jan. 1, all visitors to school buildings will wear badges made from chemically treated paper timed so that the word "Expired" appears after a few hours. All of the district's telephones also now trace incoming calls, a help in dealing with the dozens of bomb threats received each year.

The national discussion of school safety has focused on the shootings committed by disturbed students at a half-dozen schools around the country since 1997. But guns are a far lesser problem in Buffalo than custody disputes or property crimes. Two students have been found with guns in school this year in Buffalo, but the district has never had a shooting on school property involving a student.

The Buffalo Police Department, which works closely with the school district on security issues, will offer any help it can in developing the security system, said Lt. Larry J. Baehre, the department's spokesman.

"It's probably good that they have a unified system instead of a hodge-podge approach," he said. "In this day and age, you need to re-evaluate your system."

Neighboring suburban districts have made security changes in recent years, but extensive systems such as the one under in consideration in Buffalo are not yet common.

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district, however, is considering a standardized security system. Right now, the district keeps all but one door locked at most school buildings, and has security officers patrolling the hallways at both high schools.

The Ken-Ton district has never had a serious incident of school violence, and most of the security problems on school property are "pretty routine," said Superintendent David Paciencia.

Like Buffalo, the Orchard Park district has had a growing problem with custody disputes spilling over into schools. Superintendent Charles Stoddart said district staff must intercede "many times a year" in custody disputes, and on almost any given day during the school year, a district employee is testifying in a custody case in court.

This year, the district began keeping all doors except the main entrances locked at school buildings. District staff such as school psychologists, who travel from building to building, now wear identification badges.

Later this year, visitors at the high school will be required to wear the chemically-treated paper badges timed to change to an "expired" appearance. And this week, the district is installing a caller-identification system on all of its telephones.

Locking the school doors is inconvenient but necessary, Stoddart said.

"Often we've discovered that children are being used as pawns in these horrific custody disputes," he said. "They are vulnerable, and we, as the custodians during the day, are vulnerable as well."

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