A challenging day for new school superintendent

Dallas Dance knew a little of what the Perry Hall High School students were going through Monday after a student was critically wounded in the cafeteria by another student.

His senior year at Armstrong High School in Richmond, Va., a 14-year-old student had opened fire with a pistol in a hallway, wounding two adults as students took exams.

No one prepares superintendents for first days like this, but Baltimore County's new superintendent said school systems always prepare for such acts of violence.

"You always plan for the what-ifs," he said.

Dance began his day in the auditorium of the George Washington Carver Center for the Arts and Technology, where students cheered their first day in a new building and he praised students for the community of artists they have created.

But just hours later, Dance would be confronting news that a serious car accident had injured a student at Woodlawn High School. And then came reports of the shooting at Perry Hall High, the first time in recent memory that a student had opened fire inside a Baltimore County school.

Dance had been visiting Woodlawn High School as part of his scheduled tour of eight schools on opening day when he got word about the shooting.

School board President Lawrence Schmidt said a group of officials were in the school lobby when both Dance and the county executive were suddenly on their cellphones.

"He was calm and concerned ... all the things you would think. Obviously his first thought, that everyone had, was for the victims," Schmidt said.

"My question was, 'Did we have anyone hurt?'" Dance said. After he heard some details, he headed for Perry Hall. He said he wanted to talk to the police chief first to get the accurate details. He praised the principal for his handling of the situation and tried to stay out of his way.

By late afternoon, a somber Dance came down the long circular stairway at the school system's Greenwood headquarters to answer questions from reporters and to announce that school would open at Perry Hall on Tuesday with more security and a lot of counseling support for students and staff.

When asked why the school was opening so soon after a shooting that sent a student to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, he said, "Why not open?" There are many successes ahead for the school this year, he said, and he wanted it to begin to take those steps.

Dance continues to say that safety is his top priority and that he understands that parents want to know their children will be safe when they go to school. "We want to make sure our environments are safe," he said.

He did not address the fact that a gun had gotten into a school and what precautions he might take in the future.

He said he was in touch with the police every 30 minutes and that he believes the school system had planned well for such an incident.

Beginning in elementary school, all Baltimore County students practice a lockdown drill. Students are taught that the doors to classrooms would be closed and locked, the lights turned off and that everyone should hide as best they could.

That routine was carried out at Perry Hall on Monday, students said.

But Dance also talked about how faculty at the school had intervened to stop the shooter. "Had it not been for the heroic acts of Perry Hall faculty, this could be a lot worse," he said.

Schmidt said school leaders will be taking a long look at the facts surrounding the shooting.

"I think anytime you have a situation like this, you always step back and you do an analysis of what went right, what could be improved on, and is there anything that could be changed. We have to wait for the police investigation," he said.


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