New, stricter security measures have been put in place at the Hands On Children’s Museum, according to Executive Director Patty Belmonte.
The measures were adopted after a parent reported to staff that she believed a man did drugs in the family bathroom, which is near the museum’s coatroom.
A new policy requires all visitors to sign in, even if they’re only eating at the cafe or shopping in the gift shop. In addition, new signs are being installed stating that restrooms are for customers only.
Vanessa Brigham, who lives in Thurston County near Tumwater, said somebody tried the locked door when she was in the family restroom with her 18-month-old son and 4-year-old daughter. When they came out, a man went into the restroom.
“He came out high as a kite; he was dancing around,” Brigham said. “He was, like, flailing his arms and staggering. …We saw him before he went in, and he came out and he was definitely different.”
Belmonte said the man didn’t approach anybody in the museum, and there were no needles or other evidence left in the bathroom to indicate that he had done drugs.
“In this case, our customer perceived it to be threatening,” she said. “ … He didn’t approach anyone. He didn’t make any threats.”
When she reported the incident to museum staff, Brigham said she was surprised to learn that the lobby area was open to the general public and that the restrooms weren’t designated for customers only.
Later, she said she saw The Olympian’s story about Olympia Police responding to a call at the museum on Nov. 27 for an “unwanted subject” at the museum who ran away from police and jumped into East Bay. Police were able to get the man, who was described as having mental issues, out of the water after nearly 90 minutes. He had warrants out for his arrest, according to police.
Belmonte said the man who fled from police had tried on previous occasions to enter an area of the museum that’s restricted to adults with children, and the police were called because he was no longer welcome at the museum.
She described the two incidents as separate and isolated.
However, Brigham said the two incidents made her feel unsafe, particularly in the museum’s lobby area.
“Obviously the security needs to be better,” Brigham told The Olympian. “I think that area shouldn’t be made public.”
After Brigham’s complaint, the museum’s staff met last week and came up with several ideas for improving security, Belmonte said.
“Safety of our visitors and our staff has always been a priority,” she said. “Whenever a parent brings a concern to us, it gives us a chance to improve our safety protocols.”
In addition to new signs about all visitors checking in and bathrooms being designated for customers only, the museum is installing a deadbolt on its family restroom that will indicate if the restroom is vacant or occupied, Belmonte said. The museum also plans to make adjustments to the cafe supervisor’s desk to improve that person’s view of the museum’s entrance, and to continue training staff on the importance of alerting managers if they see unusual behavior, Belmonte said.
The museum’s staff has created a list of public restrooms downtown, with the hours and locations, to give to people who need that information, Belmonte said. They also made copies of a list of mental health resources, emergency shelters and other services, to have available for people who might enter the museum and need help, Belmonte said.
As the largest children’s museum in the state, serving 300,000 visitors a year, the museum is always looking for ways to improve, Belmonte said.
“It’s part of our culture that we really seek out and pay attention to what our visitors tell us, and this is just one example of that,” she said. “I feel really proud of the fact that we are a safe haven for families, and we want to keep it that way.”
As of last week, Olympia Police had responded this year to 67 calls at the museum at 414 Jefferson St. NE, including the Dec. 7 narcotics call, according to documents obtained by The Olympian.
Many of those calls simply used the museum as a landmark and were for suspicious activity in the neighboring East Bay Public Plaza or at a construction site behind the museum, according to Olympia Police Lt. Paul Lower. The plaza, which has a wading stream and public restrooms that are open mid-April through mid-October, is managed by LOTT Clean Water Alliance.
“We’ve never had any major incidents down there (in the museum),” Lower said. “They’re pretty proactive about the folks who come and go out of their facility.”
The museum appears to be a drop-off or meeting place for some parents with joint custody of their children, and that’s resulted in some domestic or no-contact-order violation calls, Lower said.
Several of the calls were generated by officers stopping off at the museum during an event or when they’re in the area, he said.
Lower said some downtown locations have two or three times as many police calls as the museum does.
Colley Joubert of Olympia, who visits the museum regularly with her children ages 7, 5 and 3, said she supports the changes.
“I think it makes sense to have everyone sign in — I have no problem doing that,” she said. “… I have always felt confident that they put a lot of thought and effort into their policies and procedures.”
Jennifer Huntley of Olympia, whose 4-year-old daughter attends the museum’s pre-kindergarten program, said she’s always felt like the staff has taken security seriously.
But in this age of Sandy Hook and other mass shootings involving children, organizations must stay on top of security issues, she said.
“I can empathize with any parents who have concerns about security,” she said. “And I feel like the museum is doing all that it can to keep the kids and the parents safe.”