With a sharper focus on school security in the weeks following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, administrators at Laurel High School said their priority is always the safety of students and staff, and the school works regularly with Laurel Police to ensure that safety.
However, Laurel High is unique in Prince George's County: It is the only high school without a school resource officer — an armed, uniformed police officer employed by either the county or local municipality, according to Prince George's Police spokeswoman Officer Nicole Hubbard.
In Prince George's County, each public high school is supposed to be staffed by two investigators/counselors who are certified police officers employed by the school system, at least two security assistants and an SRO. Hubbard, who previously served as an SRO in Fort Washington, said some municipalities with their own police departments, like Bowie and Greenbelt, provide SROs to the schools from their local police force.
Deborah Toppins, an investigator/counselor at Laurel High, said the school has not had an SRO for several years, but it "doesn't worry us."
And Principal Dwayne Jones agrees.
"Laurel city (police) is a phone call away," Jones said, "The team I have has done a good enough job, and with the assistance of Laurel city, not having one has not hurt the school."
However, Jones said, the school has been working with Laurel Police to again have a full-time SRO at the school.
The larger importance of an SRO, Toppins said, is the sharing of information between the police and the school. Toppins and Jones both said the school has a strong relationship with the Laurel Police, and Toppins said the lines of communication are always open between the two. However, "the line of communication is a much straighter line if they're here with us and we're here with them," Toppins said.
"(Laurel Police) are here a lot," she said. "Any additional help would be great, and it's definitely a good resource, but our team has done a good job without (an SRO)."
Safety support from the city
Laurel Deputy Police Chief Jimmy Brooks said Laurel Police are the first responders to any incidents on school property.
But, said Laurel Deputy City Administrator Martin Flemion, when it comes to building security, the onus is on the Prince George's County Public Schools.
"It's a county facility, but we've been an assisting resource and are willing to help," Flemion said. "We would be happy to put a police officer in the high school, as long as the county would reimburse us the cost."
While a Laurel Police officer is not stationed at the school, Brooks said there is a visible and constant police presence in and around the building.
"Laurel Police officers walk through the halls of the school and the walking paths every day," Brooks said. "We have a Laurel officer posted there in the morning to assist with traffic. Our officers work with the school security, we have a pretty good working relationship with the school."
Brooks said the department's SWAT team recently conducted walk-throughs at each school within the city limits so that, in the case of a critical incident, responders are familiar with the surroundings.
While there has never been a Laurel police officer assigned to be the school's SRO — it was previously handled by county police and briefly the Prince George's Sheriff's Office — Brooks said he would not be opposed to putting an officer in the school.
Addressing rumors for a safe environment
Jones and Toppins cited a recent incident at Laurel High as an example of the close working relationship between the school and police.
On Dec. 17, a student was admitted to a local hospital for psychiatric evaluation after the school and police learned he may have had plans to harm others.
Toppins said a teacher first came to her with assignments the student had turned in that "raised concern." The student was not in school, Toppins said, and his locker was searched. Toppins said his parents were called, and they agreed to take the student to the hospital, where he was ultimately admitted by police.
"We followed the protocol we were supposed to follow," Jones said. "We involved the local authorities like we're supposed to."
The school had been monitoring the student for a couple of weeks prior to the incident for unrelated issues, Jones said.
"Everybody is more aware (after Sandy Hook)," Jones said. "We've worked with Laurel City Police in numerous capacities to keep the building safe. ... The safety of the students and staff is job No. 1, and at no time this school year were any of our kids or staff in harm's way."
A few days after the Dec. 17 incident, a Laurel High student was assaulted and robbed at gunpoint on one of the footpaths leading from the school.
"The paths on both sides of the building have always been a concern, community-wide," Jones said. "We've told our kids before, we don't suggest using the paths, but if you have to use them, walk in groups. ... Considering the amount of traffic that goes through there, the amount of incidents are minuscule compared to the number of people who use that path."
While a Laurel man and a juvenile female were arrested in connection with the footpath incident, rumors were circulating that the student from the previous incident was somehow involved, Jones said.
Addressing and combating rumors is a serious issue, Toppins said, especially when social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter are taken into consideration. Jones likened the instant access to cellphones and the messages sent through them to the childhood game of Telephone: "It never fails for the message to change."
Laurel High held a security forum Thursday, Jan. 10, to review safety practices at the school. Robocalls went out to parents of the approximately 1,800 students, and while turn-out was small in comparison, Jones took it as a sign that parents are already comfortable with the safety of their children.
"The folks who didn't show up, they already trust and understand that we're doing everything we can to keep their children safe," Jones said. "I think they know it's our No. 1 duty to keep the young people and the adults in this building as safe as possible."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun