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What would happen here? Baltimore area students, parents and educators evaluate safety plans after Florida school shootings

Several students walked up to Baltimore school police officer Tiffany Wiggins Thursday morning with the same question.

What are we going to do if there’s a school shooting here?

It was a question that many students — and parents, teachers and administrators — were asking after a 19-year-old Florida man allegedly returned to his former high school and opened fire, killing at least 17 people.

Wiggins, an officer at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Hampden, told students not to worry — they’ll be safe with her there.

But she thought: Good question. What are we going to do?

From a Republican state delegate’s proposal to arm school employees to promises that districts will do a better job holding mandatory active shooter drills to parents asking schools to be more vigilant about letting outsiders into their facilities, Marylanders asked themselves and each other what can be done to prevent tragedy here.

There were some next-day jitters at a couple of schools, and some false alarms: Pimlico Elementary/Middle School and the Reginald F. Lewis campus were placed on lockdown, said a city district spokeswoman, Edie House-Foster. But the only weapon reported to police was a BB gun at Pimlico, she said.

In Baltimore County, officials put Loch Raven High School on lockdown after police received a report that a student had a gun in a backpack. It was lifted after police took a 14-year-old student with a replica gun into custody. There was no shooting or injuries.

Ashley Mullaney has a son in the 11th grade at Loch Raven. When she heard about the lockdown, she assumed the worst.

"My first instinct was any parent's: to rush over here as fast as possible," Mullaney said. "It's a helpless feeling when the cops have the road to your child's school locked down, and you have no idea what's going on.”

The shooting at the school in Parkland, Fla., raised questions about how local school systems prepare.

“Schools must be places where students and staff know they are safe, where parents and caregivers can send their children every morning with confidence that they will return whole and well every afternoon,” city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement. “Our commitment to our students means doing everything in our power to keep violence outside of our school doors.”

But Wiggins, speaking as a board member of the school police union, said a state law that that forbids officers based in schools to carry guns on campus could put students in danger.

“Being an unarmed officer at the school, there’s nothing I can really do except for call for help like the people in Florida had to do,” she said.

Whether to allow school police to carry guns has been the subject of heated debate in Maryland.

Without guns, some say, officers won’t be able to protect students or themselves in a shooting.

Others say armed police would promote a prison-like atmosphere in schools.

Del. Richard K. Impallaria has filed legislation in Annapolis that would give public school districts authority to allow “certain, select” employees to carry firearms on school property to help prevent mass causalities in a school shooting.

Impallaria, a Republican who represents parts of Harford and Baltimore counties, envisions schools opting to allow several staff members to carry in a concealed manner guns that they could use in an emergency.

“The advantage is when a school is armed and no one in the public knows who the armed people are, it makes the school safer,” he said Thursday.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright is president of the city school police union.

“I had officers calling our office yesterday in tears, saying that we’re helpless in the fact that if this happens at one of our buildings, there’s nothing we can do,” he said.

There was an armed officer on campus of the Florida school at the time of the shooting, but Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Thursday the officer never encountered the suspect during the attack.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English said the union opposes Impallaria’s gun legislation, but urges city and state politicians to pass laws that would require more training for school staff and students on what to do if a shooter enters a school.

“Training will equip all those in schools with the necessary directions and tools on how to navigate the situation if such an event should happen in Baltimore City Schools,” English said in a statement.

Baltimore schools are required to hold at least one lockdown drill, one shelter-in-place drill and one evacuation drill each year, according to the district’s emergency management guide.

Last year, dozens of schools failed to hold these drills, The Baltimore Sun found in an analysis of drill logs.

District officials pledged to do better this year. They have launched a new method of monitoring the number of drills a school conducts each month.

“We need to make sure students and staff can be assured we’re following all safety regulations and requirements,” Keith Scroggins, the school district's chief operating officer, said this year.

Each school is required to develop a School Emergency Safety Plan and present procedures to their entire staff.

“Individual school safety plans should be preventative in nature,” the emergency management guide states.

Edward A. Clarke, a former Montgomery County police officer and school safety officer who directs the Maryland Center for School Safety, said investing in human capital — encouraging communication about students, parents, school personnel and others — can help identify threats better than cameras and other security devices.

“The best thing we all can do is have a strong climate at schools where teachers know the students,” he said.

Parents should engage with their schools, know their plans for an active shooter or other disaster, and have an age-appropriate discussion with their children on following instructions during an emergency, he said.

“We need to encourage students, if you know of fellow students in crisis, or see a threat on social media,” Clarke said, “you should bring it to the attention of a trusted adult.”

The center, created by the Maryland General Assembly after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, offers training and disseminates best practices from around the country. Clarke said the center hosts weekly phone conferences with school security and other personnel in which they discuss school shootings and what can be learned from them.

Trish Garcia Pilla, a parent advocate in Baltimore, said some are concerned about how easily visitors can gain access to school buildings. The district has a policy for this process: A visitor must check in at the school’s office, present a valid ID and wear a distinguishing badge.

“The policy is correct,” she said. “It just is not adhered to by every school uniformly.”

So far this year, Baltimore school officials have confiscated three loaded guns brought into schools by students.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Christina Tkacik and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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