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, 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.