It was after May’s elementary school mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that Gunnery Sgt. Jennifer McNeil really began looking around her children’s military daycare center.
The mother of a 6-month-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, McNeil is a supply chain and material management specialist at the ground supply school on Camp Johnson, North Carolina.
Her kids are her lifeline, she says, and right now she fears they aren’t safe.
“I walked in that day and just started questioning what the protocols were and I realized how easy it was to get in the building,” she told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview. “I asked the caregivers ‘What were their procedures?’ and it was just too many ‘I don’t knows’ and ‘This is what we’ve been told to do,’ and after adding everything up it just didn’t make sense to me.”
It was just a few days later she submitted an Interactive Customer Evaluation complaint. And other concerned parents followed.
ICE complaints are a tool for service members to use when they have concerns regarding base facilities and services, and can be submitted online anonymously. They often are viewed as a step down in severity from submitting an inspector general complaint, which focus more on command issues.
Parent complaints filed against Heroes Manor I, one of five child development centers on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, include the lack of locked doors and personnel checks made by those entering the building.
The Uvalde, Texas, shooting, which killed 19 children and two teachers ― one of whom was the mother of a Marine reservist ― happened after an 18-year-old gunman entered the elementary school through a door that failed to lock and barricaded himself in a fourth grade classroom for over an hour.
Marine Corps Times was unable to verify by time of publication if ICE complaints had been submitted regarding any other child development centers on base.
“We protect our gear and assets better than we protect our children,” McNeil said. “We go to the armory — you can’t get into the back of the vault. You go to pick up Simple Key Loader gear for communications and you have to get buzzed in, but for our children? For our children you can just walk straight into the building and have access that easily.”
‘It hasn’t been used’
On-base childcare development centers provide daily childcare services for children ranging in age from infant to preschool.
They also offer support for children with special needs. Other childcare services on base include school age care programs and family child care homes, in addition to base schools.
According to complaints by McNeil and Cpl. Sabrina Wolverton, a water support technician with Marine Wing Support Squadron 272, there is an unacceptable lack of security in place at Heroes Manor I.
“When you walk into the CDC they have two double doors, you go through one door and then the next door, and in-between them there is this machine that apparently has been sitting there for a year,” McNeil stated. “You’re supposed to scan your ID card because it’s been registered to open the doors when your kid is registered there. I think that’s a great idea, but it’s been sitting there for a year and it hasn’t been used.”
“When I spoke to the caregivers, they told me they felt like sitting ducks,” McNeil told Marine Corps Times.
Initial investigation reports into the Uvalde, Texas, shooting show that a teacher saw the shooter approaching the school and shut the external door, according to ABC news. The lock on the door failed and the shooter was able to get into the school through that entrance.
At the North Carolina childcare development center, none of the internal doors have locks. And, the bathrooms inside of the rooms ― where active shooter procedures say students and teachers should take cover in the event of an emergency ― don’t even have doors, a caregiver who works there revealed.
The caregiver, who would only speak to Marine Corps Times on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing the job, said “everything” about the facility’s security setup is a concern.
“Anyone can walk into that building at any time, there’s nothing to stop them,” the caregiver said. “All you have to do is be able to get on base.”
Nat Fahy, director for communication strategy and operations, Marine Corps Installations East, told Marine Corps Times in an email that outside of the childcare development center, the base has several layers of security available.
“We implement a stringent base access system to ensure only properly vetted individuals enter the base,” he said. “Additionally, our security forces and Special Response Team routinely evaluate and train to respond to security threats, such as active shooter scenarios, at locations across the installation.”
And while security forces on base may practice active shooter scenarios, the caregiver at the facility says they haven’t practiced an active shooter drill in years.
“I do not recall ever having an active shooter drill or anything other than a fire drill,” said the caregiver, who has worked at the childcare development center for multiple years.
Fahy said the childcare development center does have policies in place that are meant to control who has access to the facility.
According to Defense Department Instruction 6060.02, “all persons other than employees and family members bringing in or picking up children sign in and out at the front desk or with appropriate personnel. Visitors to the CDP shall sign in and out of the facility and wear a visitors badge at all times while they are in the facility or on playgrounds.”
“While we expect continuous adherence to these policies,” Fahy said, “there is always potential for lapses and changes in circumstances.”
The problem is, according to complaints filed by parents, regardless of whether people are family members or staff, they may not be being stopped at all.
Just days after the Texas shooting, the caregiver detailed a moment in which men walked into the childcare building and allegedly said, “Hey, I’m IT,” and were let through. No IDs were checked, the caregiver said.
“It just goes to show that anyone can walk in and just say, ‘Hey I’m here for this or that’ and be let through.”
‘Anyone could slip through the cracks’
Though the lack of locks on doors is not against any Defense Department policy, both mothers and the caregiver said locks would give them more peace of mind.
“It would just make me feel better if they actually had locked doors,” Wolverton said. “I get parents just want to get in and out, but in the early morning or afternoon when drop off and pick up are happening, there’s a lot of in flow and out flow and I feel like literally anyone could slip through the cracks.”
A notable lack of scientific research has showed that locks have decreased threats, according to school safety experts interviewed by ABC following the Uvalde, Texas, shooting.
Another parent suggestion included posting military police at the center, even if it was just one Marine or law enforcement officer to stand at the entrance or patrol the grounds, to ensure quicker response time in the event of a security threat or to stop any would-be offenders.
The caregiver also requested blinds for the internal windows.
The building features large panels of glass that serve as the walls between the classrooms and the hallways, and the doors themselves also have large panels. Blinds could be pulled down in the event of an intruder and would help students hide, the caregiver said.
The last security upgrade suggested was better training for all facility employees.
“We can’t be armed, we have nothing to protect ourselves with,” the caregiver said. “And so it’s amazing that some of these places on base have such top notch security and then you come to the daycare and there’s not really one single security measure other than ‘hide in the bathroom.’”
Daycare safety measures are thoroughly reviewed, Fahy said.
“We regularly review and refine our CDC emergency procedures in coordination with our law enforcement and other installation resources to ensure our children have safe and suitable areas for play and early development,” Fahy said.
“At our CDCs, in addition to the current lockdown and other emergency procedures, we are procuring updated room security/access control systems that, when installed and functional, will assist in safely securing rooms against outside intrusions. We anticipate installation will be completed in the upcoming months.”
For the parents and caregivers, however, having to wait for security upgrades to be made at an unspecified date is not good enough.
“I’m not going to wait for [a shooting] to happen on this base and have my kids be an example,” McNeil said.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran, Penn State alumna and Master’s candidate at New York University for Business and Economic Reporting.