For weeks, Pacific Beach parents raised concerns to school administration about gates to the Pacific Beach Middle School campus being left wide-open and unattended during school hours.
Now, a new principal is making changes to school procedures to make sure all campus gates remain locked during school hours.
NBC 7 Investigates visited the school Monday and found a gate to the campus wide-open and unattended, allowing unvetted public access to the school during school hours. A security camera was aimed toward the gate, but no staff monitored the entrance for nearly an hour NBC 7 observed the school.
Another gate remained open Monday only between sixth period dismissal and an optional seventh period, parents said. One parent says she saw a suspicious man carrying a duffel bag who walked right onto campus through this entrance on Oct. 23. She says she observed him looking around and then walking off campus again, during school hours.
"My mother's intuition kicked in, and I just felt that gut feeling: "Something's not right here,'" said the parent, who asked not to be named. She said she reported it to the school principal but felt the administrator's response was "flippant" and that her only excuse was the large size of Pacific Beach Middle School's campus, which spans two full city blocks.
"I felt uneasy about the entire situation, and it stayed on my mind all weekend," the parent said.
After NBC 7 Investigates scoped out the situation Monday and discovered the gate to the campus allowing unrestricted access to the campus, we inquired with the school about procedures.
Monday night, school parents received a voice message and email from the principal stating all gates would now be locked.
"Starting this week, the gates from the parking lot to the school campus will be locked during school hours," the email states.
On Tuesday, Principal Kimberly Meng sat down with NBC 7 to discuss the issue, saying that she also noted the problem when she began her job in October.
"When I came to campus, I always check safety and I noticed there are quite a bit of gates and lots of gates for entrance and exit before-school and after-school," Meng said. "And we have some gates that are left open during the school day, which we try not to ever do, and I'm not accustomed to that from working at other school sites."
Meng said she was working on a solution that includes obtaining more keys for school staff to lock and unlock the gates and addressing handicap access issues, as well as other safety concerns.
"So, we have to think about, of course, keeping our kids safe when they are on campus all day long," Meng said. "That safety includes people coming on campus, but it also includes our students being able to evacuate should an incident ever occur on campus, in terms of if there were a fire. We need to be able to get off-campus quickly, too. That has been the reasoning behind a gate or gates unlocked during school hours."
District officials say San Diego Unified just completed a comprehensive safety study, evaluating all unique safety challenges at the different school sites.
At PBMS, which is surrounded by city streets and a public rec center to the west of campus, that study includes recommendations for modernization, like a drop-off and pick-up zone, so the best access to campus is more defined by one entrance.
That report is due to come to the board in January.
School trustee Scott Barnett agreed to do an interview about this issue, but then backed out at the last minute, saying he had a family emergency.
In 2013, NBC 7 Investigates found that California state officials have no idea how many schools have safety plans in place.
In California, the law requires schools to develop and annually update their safety plans for prevention and response to school violence, natural disasters and other emergencies. However, NBC 7 Investigates found that in the past 10 years, no California school district has ever reported a school for not complying with the Ed Code’s safety requirements, and no district has ever been fined for not following the law.
In 2013, district officials with more than half of the 42 school districts in San Diego County said they did not collect and review official school safety drill reports from their individual school sites. San Diego Unified changed those practices based on that report.
In addition, state officials say they do not know how much in state funds, set aside for school safety and violence prevention, is being used for those purposes.
Both the San Diego Police Department and the school administration urged parents to bring concerns to their attention.
"It takes all of us, really, to keep the campus safe," Meng said. "Anything that parents see, anything that they hear, coming directly to the office and letting us know is the best way if they see something going on. If they are very fearful of a situation because they see something happening in the neighborhood that could impact our school or the safety of our students, I would even recommend calling the police."
A spokesman for the San Diego Police Department concurred.
"The San Diego Police Department encourages our public to report suspicious and/or criminal activity," Lt. Kevin Mayer said in a written statement.