We are one week removed from the March 14 national protest in which students in some, but not all, schools left their classes at 10 a.m. to remember the 17 victims of the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., while also bringing awareness to the ongoing problem of gun violence in our country.
While this editorial was going to be mainly about school safety issues in Harford County and how public and private school leaders in our county, as well as students, reacted to last week’s national “walkout,” the now takes precedence.
On Tuesday, at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, a 17-year-old student with a gun shot and wounded a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl inside the school, which has an enrollment of approximately 1,600 – about the size of Bel Air High, Harford County’s largest school. The 17-year-old died; while the other two students were hospitalized, the girl in critical condition, according to the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office.
According to baltimoresun.com reports on the incident, a school resource officer, who was armed, fired at the 17-year-old, who almost simultaneously fired back with a handgun, which police have identified as a 9 mm Glock. No other injuries were reported. Students were evacuated and there was what one official said was a “mass response” of law enforcement and fire personnel to the scene. More details can be found at www.baltimoresun.com.
From the school resource officer’s actions to the locking down and then evacuation of other students, it sounds like a proverbial textbook case of how to respond to a school shooting. But let’s not kid ourselves, because the Great Mills incident once again brings attention to flaws in school security that exist throughout our home county, our state and our nation.
If schools were indeed secure, nobody with a gun or any other weapon would get past a front door. Nor would anybody who doesn’t belong in the school get past the front door, weapon or not, unlike what we just saw locally when three non-students were able to get into Joppatowne High School on March 13 and beat up a student in the cafeteria.
The Joppatowne incident, like the one at Great Mills High, isn’t isolated. They happen more frequently than probably gets reported and, unfortunately, the response is about the same for all of them: School officials, political types – from the President of the United States right on down the line to the elected officials in municipalities and counties – express shock and outrage, pledge action and ask everyone to pray, while communities across the country mourn. Changes are vowed, legislation is sponsored, money is pledged and then, nothing happens except some other school somewhere else experiences a gun attack.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed spending $125 million toward enhancing school security across the state, such as providing money for reinforcing doors and panic buttons, as reported by The Baltimore Sun. Hogan also has proposed a $50 million grant system for schools that could pay for more resource officers and to enable a statewide monitoring system of social media to look for threats.
We’re not trying to malign the good intentions of the governor, or the state legislature which we believe will react favorably to what Hogan has proposed, but let’s look realistically at the situation. Ground is about to be broken for a new high and middle school in Havre de Grace that will cost approximately $90 million to construct; the recently completed Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston cost nearly $40 million to construct. These new schools are replacing two of the oldest schools in Harford County, but there are a number of other schools, such as Southampton Middle and Joppatowne High that are 40 or more years old. A statewide initiative of $125 million to address security flaws in individual schools, is not going to go very far toward meeting its objectives.
Harford Board of Education President Joseph Voskuhl raised similar concerns in a phone conversation following the March 21 national demonstration, namely that the local school districts don’t have the money it takes to make schools more secure, a task all that more daunting because of the wide variance in ages and designs of the 50-plus buildings in the Harford system alone.
While Voskuhl is correct, he’s also not the first person locally, or in other places, to sound such a lament, which almost universally becomes the fallback excuse every time a school’s security system is breached, even from the most minor standpoint.
These responses simply can’t continue to stand. What happened in Parkland and on Tuesday at Great Mills can’t be repeated, and we believe there’s a much better chance of that not happening if every school building – public and private – is properly secured and monitored and staff and students are made to follow established protocols, with consequences if they don’t.
Over the years, we’ve heard many arguments against metal detectors in schools – from their cost to the presumed logistical nightmare of checking in thousands of students and staff daily. Yet, how many more shootings will it take to realize this is an essential aspect of school security, just as it has become in every courthouse and many other public buildings, certainly in Harford County and elsewhere in Maryland.
We won’t lay the school security debate to rest in this space, nor we suspect will we in future editions and online, but we’re also not going to stop beating the drum for more secure schools – and schools that are designed with security in mind which historically has not been the case in Harford County (Youth’s Benefit being the latest example) – until the killing stops.