13 INVESTIGATES: Abandoned Schools - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Abandoned Schools

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When Brad Hobbs and East Birmingham resident Richard Rutledge videotaped their discovery of confidential student records at the former Banks High School a few weeks ago, the security breach spearheaded a quick response.

The Birmingham School District told us, "Staff has been working to remove the items."

The City of Birmingham re-secured the gates which had been left wide open.  

However, what Hobbs found in the school from which he graduated in 1978 motivated him to challenge student record security around the city.

"What has happened at all the other schools in the Birmingham area that have been shut down?  Were they handled like Banks was?  Are there records sitting in vacant school buildings around the city?  That is a huge question," Hobbs asked.

So big in fact, he visited Birmingham City Hall the next Tuesday and issued a challenge to City Council.

"Some kind of one time compliance inspection or search of the vacated property be conducted to insure that there are no more records with sensitive student information  out there loose and available for vandals and looters to get their hands on," Hobbs told the Council.

City Councilor Kim Rafferty pointed out that the city is only responsible for three closed schools, including Banks.

The other 15 fall under the supervision of the Birmingham School District.

Rafferty said she spoke with Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon about securing confidential student records.

"I asked, or I strongly urged him to go back and check all of the schools that had been closed because he had been told when he came in that all of the schools, the policy had been followed through," Rafferty responded to Hobbs.

So to test the security of the Birmingham School District's 15 closed schools, we conducted our own a campus-by-campus inspection.

We walked around the outside of each school with a camera to see if there were any open doors or windows.

At many, like Gate City Elementary, the doors were welded shut.

While others, like Tuxedo Elementary, were surrounded by locked security fences.

However, we also found a handful of security issues.  

Out of the 15 we inspected, nine of the closed schools had very few, if any, entry points.

So we rated them ‘secure'.

Three others, Wilson Elementary, Powderly Elementary and Arthur Elementary were ‘mostly secure'.

At Wilson Elementary, we found the door to a portable classroom open with a television inside.

Powderly was locked up tight out front, but we found a few windows open around back, including one which revealed a stockpile of nursery furniture.

Arthur Elementary's main building was secure, but a door to a portable classroom was wide open with a filing cabinet a few feet away. 

That leaves Price Elementary, Riggins Alternative School and Going Elementary.

Those three campuses earned our ‘unsecure' rating.  

Let's start with Price.

We found a portable classroom door unlocked, an open window and the front door to the school unsecure.

At Riggins we noticed numerous open windows.

We also found at least two unlocked doors, including a back door propped open with a fire extinguisher. 

Finally there was Going Elementary.

We found more than a dozen unlocked doors there, including this one to a room containing at least one television for the taking.

For an interactive map, detailing what we found at each one of the closed campuses, click here.

We shared our findings with Birmingham School Board member Virginia Volker.

When we asked Volker how secure she thought the closed campuses were, she responded, "I have asked the Superintendent and have not had a response."

Then we explained the security shortcomings we found and asked her if she was surprised.

She replied, "If you want me to, if you'll give me those specific places, I will certainly call that to the Superintendent's attention and it does need to be addressed."

However, unlocked doors and open windows were not all we found.

Half a dozen of the closed buildings either still had the lights on inside, or air conditioners cooling empty campuses.

When we asked Volker about the air conditioners, she answered, "There may be some reason for that in terms of preserving certain records or materials or the building, I don't know.  I don't know.  I could not tell you.  The Superintendent should be able to tell you."

We thought he should be able to as well.

That's why we not only asked for an explanation from the Superintendent's office, we also filed an open records request for utility costs at the closed schools we mentioned.

So far, they have claimed, "Air conditioning is left on in any facility after vacating to climatize the room where servers are located."

As for the lights, they explained, "Lights are on for security, to support visibility since cameras are in operation."

Back to Brad Hobbs' huge question:  Are there records sitting in vacant school buildings around the city?

We cannot say for sure.

'No trespassing' signs posted on the outside of the buildings prevented us from taking our inspections inside.

However, if more records have been overlooked, based on the security breaches we did find, it would not take much for those records to end up in the wrong hands.

"Everybody assumed on this.  And everybody has heard the adage about what happens when you assume.  And we are seeing the result of that now," Hobbs concluded.

The School District has told us they are visiting other closed campuses to, "Ensure procedures were followed in decommissioning those buildings."

Since our initial inspections, we did find that some of the unlocked doors and open windows are now secure.

On another note, we have reported that we wanted to know how much money the School District spent on removing confidential records from Banks School which previous crews had missed.

We have learned they spent nearly $28,800 just on the most recent record recovery.

Still no word on the name of the contractor or how much was paid to those who did not finish the job in years past.


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