Throughout the weekend and into Monday morning, Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance's conversations with the district's employees, parents and students invariably turned to student safety after the tragic Newtown, Conn. elementary school shooting on Friday, Dec. 14 during which 26 people died.
On Monday afternoon, Dance called a press conference to assure families that since the county's own incidents of gun violence at county schools — a September shooting Perry Hall High that critically injured a 17-year-old student, and an incident in which a Stemmers Run Middle student allegedly threatened his teachers and classmates with a gun — the schools system and its new Office of Safety and Security have been proactive in both preventing further incidents and preparing in the event another occurs.
Dance outlined a two-pronged plan that will allow individual principals to tailor specific crisis plans for each campus around a district-wide framework, as well as provide additional student support services for students of all ages.
"In light of what happened on Friday, we're continuing to move forward with our efforts because we've already started this work," Dance said. "At the same time, we've made sure our principals, particularly at the elementary level, understood how Friday's situation may impact them."
In addition, the superintendent said protocols were sent to schools on Sunday evening detailing how to address students' questions about the Connecticut tragedy during which a lone gunman shot and killed 20 children as well as several adults.
During Dance's Monday morning visits to Battle Monument School and Charlesmont Elementary School, kindergarten and first grade students quizzed him on how he was going to keep them safe, the superintendent said. He told them that safety is something the school system already takes seriously.
"Safety is the utmost priority for us, because if a student's basic need of safety is not met, the learning is not going to take place," Dance said.
Even so, security was added around the county's schoolhouses Monday. Dance said Police Chief Jim Johnson dispatched additional patrol vehicles in school zones, adding to the usual deployment of school resource officers assigned to middle and high schools.
"We also wanted to amp that up a little bit and make sure that folks understood police officers are constantly roaming around our schools, and particularly around our elementary schools, so that even in case they needed them, they could quickly get there on that campus," Dance said.
The school system has not discussed bringing permanent school resource officers to elementary schools, Dance said, adding that all other security overhauls, such as student and staff ID cards and expanded buzzer systems would be explored by Dale Rauenzahn, director of the newly formed Office of Safety and Security.
Additionally, the superintendent said more support staff was available at schools on a day when those staff members were originally scheduled to be out for the day for professional development instruction.
"We knew that kids were going to have questions," Dance said. "We knew elementary kids were going to have questions, and we wanted to make sure school social workers, psychologists and counselors were there to answer those questions."
Even with the school system's added precautions, Dance said there hadn't been any indication that parents held their children out of school Monday, although he said he did notice more goodbye embraces between parents and children as the students were dropped off that morning.
"I spoke with several parents this weekend as I was out in the community and all of them said, 'We feel our schools are safe, we're going to send our kids to school on Monday.' " Dance said. "I still repeatedly say to folks, schools still are one of the safest places to send children and to be."