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Shooting puts renewed focus on school safety

ChristianityColorado Movie Theater ShootingMichael DornJames HolmesRobert Wayne Gladden, Jr.

As authorities continued to investigate the shooting at Perry Hall High School, about two dozen students gathered at a church Monday night, recounting their fears during the incident — and a reluctance to go back to school.

"You just think, if it happens once, it can happen again," said senior Kyle Ritter. He said he would welcome more security on campus: "If it's going to stop all this craziness, I think it'd be a good idea."

School safety experts say that while it's understandable for some to want metal detectors and other visible signs of beefed-up security, less invasive measures usually offer the best way to keep out guns and other dangerous weapons.

"The reality is the first and best line of defense in school safety is always a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body," said consultant Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. "I train people to go with their gut feeling. If you see something and have a concern, report it."

Michael Dorn, who runs the Georgia-based nonprofit Safe Havens International, said calls for metal detectors are common after school incidents involving guns or knives. But "they're a little more involved to use them properly in schools than most people realize," he said, adding that he favors "human-based" techniques that focus on observing students' behavior.

No Baltimore County public schools use metal detectors, school officials say. But there are police officers who spend their days on high school campuses, and there was at least one officer assigned to Perry Hall High School on Monday because it was the first day of the academic year.

The county superintendent said security would be beefed up at the school on Tuesday, when it is scheduled to reopen, but he would not discuss details.

After several weapons-related incidents in Baltimore last year, the city school system vowed a renewed emphasis on requiring middle and high schools to do random checks using metal detectors and hand wands. Officials said that nearly all of the system's secondary schools were equipped with at least one of the tools and were required to use them on a random basis.

Del. John W.E. Cluster, Jr., a former police officer who lives in and represents the eastern Baltimore County community, wondered how someone could enter a school with a shotgun, as the shooter is alleged to have done.

"I am shocked that it would happen at a high school like Perry Hall," said Cluster, a delegate at the Republican National Convention this week in Tampa. "I'm also a little concerned that somebody actually went home and got a shotgun and brought it back to the school."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger spoke for many when he said, "No parent should have to worry about the safety of their child at school." The Baltimore County Democrat added, "The first day of school is supposed to be a day of reunion after a fun summer and anticipation for the year ahead."

Trump said just as these kinds of incidents frequently prompt calls for enhanced safety, they often reveal warning signs that, if better heeded, could have averted the violence.

"We have to be alert for not necessarily dramatic changes in kids and others but incremental deterioration and behavior over time," he said. "Most shooters typically don't flip overnight."

Dorn said rather than relying on a device to screen for weapons, faculty and staff can engage in what he calls "visual weapons screening."

"When somebody carries a gun, they do specific physical things that can be observed," he said. "If I shove a shotgun down my pants leg, I'm going to walk with a limp."

He also advocates "pattern matching and recognition" as a way to "pick up on a very subtle sign that something is not right." As an example, he pointed to news reports that James Holmes, who is charged with murdering 12 people in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting, had alarmed a gun range owner because of his odd answering machine message.

The technique is "very easy because it doesn't cost anything — it's just awareness of staff and helps schools detect a lot of other things they're concerned about besides violence," he said.

Campus Life, a Christian youth group that meets at Perry Hall Presbyterian Church, invited community members to meet Monday night to discuss the shooting. Teens and adults sat in a circle in a wood-paneled room as they discussed the shooting and its aftermath.

Jim Evans, whose son T.J. is a junior at Perry Hall High, said the focus needs to remain on prevention of school violence.

"All you can hope to do is try to build character," Evans said. "The warning signs were all over the place. I hope this event wakes a lot of people up."

Adult leaders encouraged the students to process their fears to move forward.

"It's perfectly normal," said Tom Sweitzer, the group's leader. "It makes sense that anxiety would creep its way in."

Evan Knapp, a Perry Hall senior, lamented that such shootings have started to seem commonplace, but urged his classmates to grow from the tragedy. "It's just the world, so you've got to overcome it," he said.

Others said they saw the tragedy as a fluke that could have happened anywhere.

"I don't know how much more they can do," said Michelle Cody, a Perry Hall junior. "I've always felt safe."

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Larry Perl contributed to this article.

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