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Harford schools: 'safety of our students and staff is always our first priority'

Schools are usually thought of a safe place for children and teachers — a haven from dangers in the outside world.

When that belief is shaken to its core, such as the case with the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., one begins to wonder what can be done to prevent similar acts.

Understandably, schools in Harford County, and most likely throughout the country, are taking a close look at their safety procedures to ensure their facilities have protocols in place to help prevent a similar tragedy from happening in their hometown.

Monday night's Harford County Board ofEducationmeeting started on a solemn note, taking a minute to reflect on Friday's tragedy in Newtown.

Board President Rick Grambo asked everyone in attendance to have a moment of silence to honor the people affected by the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Superintendent Robert Tomback followed by assuring the public that the Harford County Public Schools system does everything it can to provide a safe place for students and teachers, as well as enforce the procedures in place to keep the schools safe.

"I want to reinforce with all of our students and families and citizens in Harford County that the safety of our students and staff is always our first priority," Tomback said.

Each school has a "critical incident plan," he stated, which includes holding practice drills throughout the year.

"Harford County Public Schools has an excellent working relationship with local and state police, fire and EMS agencies," Tomback said. In addition, each school has a visitor management system to monitor those who visit any school.

HCPS teachers will work along with guidance counselors to provide students an outlet to speak about their feelings on the tragedy and/or need support. This will continue, Tomback said, "as long as necessary" and encouraged the conversations to continue at home with families.

Madelyn Ball, principal of the John Carroll School, said she had a meeting Monday morning with staff to discuss the school's procedures and what, if anything, can be changed.

Students are taking exams all week before the holiday break, but once they return in the new year, Ball said lockdown drills are planned.

In case of a lockdown, John Carroll's policy is to make sure every student is in a classroom, lock the doors and stay away from doors and windows.

There's always a situation, however, where some students are outside of a classroom in the cafeteria, hallway or gymnasium and, because of this, Ball said the school is working on a procedure to address that.

The purpose of the drills, she continued, is to "minimize the harm" that can happen. "I don't think any of us can, in a school, prevent some of these things from happening, but we can do the best we can."

Susan Harris, head of Harford Day School, said they have emergency plans in place that have been developed in conjunction with advice from Bel Air Police.

In addition, the school practices drills "routinely."

"We're always reviewing our procedures and this event [in Connecticut] only heightens our awareness," Harris said, adding they will revisit their policies.

Plans are also in place for "speedy communication with parents," she continued.

Over the weekend Harris wrote to the parents and provided age-appropriate resources on how to talk to their children about the tragedy.

In a robocall to Harford County Public Schools families, Tomback said the school system's "thoughts and prayers go out to the families of this horrible tragedy."

"In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, I wanted to reach out to our parents to let you know that we understand the fear that this incident causes," the message, also posted on hcps.org, said. "We want to assure you that our school system, like others across the nation, have proactive security measures in place to help ensure the safety of our students and staff. With that said, we also understand that safety procedures do not guarantee safety in every situation."

The public school system has provided training, installed technology and conducted drills "to protect the school community and we will continue to strictly implement these practices and procedures," Tomback told families. "We will continue to work with our community partners and you to do everything we can to ensure that are children learn in a safe and comfortable environment."

Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for Harford schools, wrote in an email Monday that the school system is "constantly reviewing procedures and making necessary adjustments" through the Citizens Advisory Committee on Safety and Security and with the help of local and state law enforcement.

"Each school has a critical incident plan designed for their school buildings," Kranefeld continued. "All schools are locked with a buzzer system in place. A visitor management system is utilized to register all visitors that enter our buildings. Active shooter drills and evacuation drills are practiced routinely."

"Understandably, parents are concerned for the safety of their children and we are working to assure our families that we will continue to work to help keep our students and staff safe," she wrote.

Bel Air Police Chief Leo Matrangola said he met with the principals of all the elementary schools in town and made sure they were able to "talk with kids and families to make sure they are OK."

The police department is fully prepared to respond to an incident such as the one at Sandy Hook, Matrangola said.

He also pointed out the highly unlikely nature of such an act happening.

"Is it possible that an event like that could happen here? Yes, it's possible. Is it probable? Probably not," he said.

"We are praying that we are not vulnerable to that, but we are making sure that we are aware and the schools are aware," he said.

Matrangola noted Harford County has "an exceptionally concerned board of ed" and he believes both the schools and first responders are capable of responding to such a threat.

"Everybody seems to be doing what they should be doing," he said.

Jeff Gilpin, spokesman for the Havre de Grace Police Department, said Havre de Grace does not feel the need to re-evaluate its emergency response because it is well established.

"The Harford County Public School system already has critical incident plans in place for such events. Our school resource officers work with the school system and our patrol shifts and training officers to ensure the most efficient, fastest and safest response," Gilpin wrote in an email.

"Locally, our agency conducts active shooter response training every year with other allied agencies such as the Aberdeen Police Department. During this training, our officers run through multiple scenarios at various locations throughout the city using force on force training weapons to practice tactics and response," he wrote. "In this training, a review of the school systems response policy is conducted in order to tailor our response to the individual locations and for our officers to know what to expect when arriving on scene."

Gilpin noted the school system's primary goal is to protect the children in the school and get them out of harm's way, while law enforcement's primary goal is to isolate and eliminate the threat.

"Together both processes work extremely well to achieve the same result, protect our children and educators," he wrote.

Gilpin also sent his condolences to the victims of the "horrible and horrific tragedy."

"Personally[,] as a father of two beautiful young boys and the lead instructor in charge of our active shooter training program, there is nothing more important to me than being prepared to protect all the innocent children, educators and residents we can," he said. "There is not much a police officer should take personal on the job, but when it comes to this type of training and preparation for such a horrific event, I and every officer I teach and work with take it very personal."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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