Students pray at Perry Hall High School

Students, family members and others gather to pray as students return for the second day of classes at Perry Hall High School. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / August 28, 2012)

Perry Hall High School is more than 20 miles from Catonsville High, where Principal Deborah Bittner announced Monday, Aug. 27, on the school intercom, "There's been a tragic situation ..."

"It's made us think and rethink how we would handle something like this," Bittner said an interview, reflecting on the shooting at Perry Hall High that morning.

There, a male student was flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center after being shot by a fellow student with a shotgun during the first lunch period of the school year, according to county police. As of Monday evening, the victim was in critical condition.

"It's a reminder of vigilance," Bittner said.


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In Towson, Notre Dame Preparatory School sent out a "Dear Families" email in the wake of the shooting.

"Please know that your daughters are safe and their well-being is always at the forefront of our minds," wrote Sister Patricia McCarron, principal of Notre Dame Prep.

Public and private schools around Baltimore County are taking to heart the school system's insistence that safety is its top priority.

"We want to make sure our environments are safe," schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance said at a news conference late Monday afternoon. In a news release, he said safety is "our paramount concern and priority."

It was a sentiment expressed by county and school officials throughout the day, even as many expressed the consensus view that the incident was isolated.

"If our schools aren't secure, the kids aren't going to learn anything," said Michael Bowler, District I representative on the county school board.

According to police, a 15-year-old student was apprehended shortly after the shooting. Police said they believe he acted alone and did not target the victim. Several other students suffered minor, nonshooting injuries during the incident, police department spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

Investigators were still reviewing details of the incident and were interviewing the suspect, who was cooperating, Armacost said.

'Big red book'

School system spokesman Charles Herndon said principals at all schools are given a "critical incident response book" that details measures to be taken in the event of emergencies, ranging from fires to school violence. The document, which Herndon said is known as "the big red book" because of its red cover, is available at the school system website, http://www.bcps.org. Principals are supposed to know the book "backwards and forward," Herndon said.

"Every school runs drills for everything," said Jackie Brewster, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County. "Nobody wants that kind of tragedy, but everyone prepares for it."

"Each year, we take care to review fire drill, lockdown and evacuation procedures, so we are best prepared in the event of an emergency, and later this week we are scheduling our first lockdown drill exercise," McCarron wrote to Notre Dame Prep families. Please be sure to talk to your daughter about the importance of these exercises and of her cooperation during these drills."

The crisis management team at Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville — which has a handful of students from the White Marsh-Perry Hall area — called the county police precinct in White Marsh and ascertained that a suspect had been taken into custody. Then Tracey Ford, Maryvale's president, sent an email to reassure the school community that "everyone is safe here," Donna Bridickas, Maryvale's principal, told a reporter.

"We're on the other side of town" from Perry Hall," Bridickas said. "But whenever there's an incident in a school, especially in the (Baltimore) area, we want to make sure we know what's happening."

"We always take the safety of our students seriously, so we didn't have to do anything differently," said Pam Oliver-Jones, principal of Sparks Elementary School.

Lynda Whitlock, principal of the 1,800-student Dulaney High School in Towson, said the faculty had gone over the school's emergency preparations the week before school opened.

"It's important that we talk about what to do in a 'code red,' " Bittner said, "that we know what to do in a situation like that: If the shooter's inside, we get the kids outside, and if the shooter's outside, we get the kids inside. We practice things like lockdowns so kids know what to do, where to go."

At a staff meeting after dismissal Monday, Bittner said, she and her staff further reviewed professional development on social media monitoring and bullying. Catonsville High will address any student questions or concerns on an individual, case-by-case basis — and if a student wants to talk, the school has five counselors and a school resource officer on staff, as well as the teachers who are always willing to listen, she said.

"Our doors are always open," Bittner said. "I know students here feel comfortable going to their teachers."

When children are upset

Unfortunately, said Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the situation at Perry Hall is no different from similar tragic situations at schools across the country; the problem, she said, is that children continue to be able to get their hands on guns, and some lack coping skills.

"When children are upset, they don't think through the consequences of their actions," she said. "They just know they're in a lot of pain."

Beytin said several teachers at Perry Hall reported an outpouring of support from the community, and that while the incident would be fresh in Perry Hall teachers' minds for a while, she didn't expect it to change "what they do and how they interact with their students."

County Councilman David Marks echoed that sentiment.

"Most people I'm talking to right now are a bit shocked, but are rallying around the larger school community," said Marks, who represents Towson and Perry Hall.

But Lawrence Schmidt, president of the county school board, said he expects to see some soul-searching.

"I think any time you have a situation like this, you have to do a retrospective and say, 'What in our emergency plans worked well and what needs to be changed in how you respond?'" said Schmidt, an attorney, who lives in Lutherville. "It's so preliminary, I don't know the details of what happened well enough to render an opinion," he said.

"You have to think about how you would react in this situation, so it's almost second nature, how to protect the kids," Bowler said. "It's too bad that we have to have these situations in this day and age."

Students around the county were a little shell-shocked at the news. Even before Bittner made her announcement at Catonsville High, "Most of us already heard about it through, you know, like cell phones," junior Evangeline Gallagher said. "It's totally shocking."

Towson High School made no announcement about the shooting, which parent Nancy Peper said was just as well.

"What were you going to do?" said Peper, first vice president of Towson High's PTSA. "It would be so hard to focus on school, and some (students) might be scared."

Sympathy for Dance

Peper said her children's reaction was much as her own.

"They were sad, and really felt for the students at Perry Hall," she said.

And she said that the ride home from school Monday evolved into a discussion of procedures that the children know of, if such an incident ever occurs at Towson High.

"Towson has very good procedures in place, and all the kids know what to do," Peper said.

There was also sympathy around the county for Dance and the school system, because Monday began as a celebration of the first day of school, record enrollment, a new superintendent and the new, $58 million replacement building for the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology.

"I felt really bad for (Dance). It was such a rough start," she said. "But, of course, a lot rougher for those Perry Hall families."

Staff writers Pat van den Beemt, Jon Meoli and Liz Bowie of The Baltimore Sun contributed to this story.