As students and teachers returned to classrooms across Harford County this week, law enforcement and public school officials say they have worked to ensure they came back to a secure environment.
For the most part, however, they are being tight-lipped about any changes in procedures or preventative measures that have been instituted to better protect Harford schools against deadly attacks from outside or inside.
Nationally, many school systems re-evaluated their procedures and increased security protocols in direct response to last December's attack by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 students and six teachers.
Representatives Harford County Public Schools and local law enforcement agencies contacted in the past week declined to give specifics about what new security measures have been put in place since the Sandy Hook tragedy, but all stressed they continue to evaluate their policies and procedures and to coordinate security planning and training among them.
Closer to home, across the Baltimore County line at Perry Hall High School, new safety measures were in place when classes resumed Aug. 27, in response to a shooting at that school on the first day of classes in 2012, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The shooter in that case, Robert W. Gladden Jr., who was 15 at the time, has been sentenced to 35 years in prison, The Sun reports; his victim, Daniel Borowy, is physically healed and is expected to be back in school.
"We evaluate and assess what we're currently doing, measured up against what is reported to have occurred," said Edward Hopkins, spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, which provides resource officers to cover the majority of the schools in the county.
Hopkins said he did not want someone who might want to harm students and staff to know "our playbook," regarding specific security measures and in-source training sessions.
The Sheriff's Office has assigned school resource officers to middle and high schools in the county for the past decade and added an 11th member to the school resource team in early 2013, Hopkins said.
He said the additional officer was not a response to Sandy Hook, however, but part of an effort to ensure the school system had "an adequate number of school resource officers at the schools and adequate coverage," he explained.
Hopkins said resource officers are assigned to middle and high schools, and they also visit local elementary schools.
A 'force multiplier'
A resource officer is meant to serve as a "force multiplier" in case of an event at a school, or prevent an incident from happening just by their presence, and be a resource for students dealing with ongoing issues such as cyber bullying, Hopkins said.
They also "give the parents a sense of peace of mind that [children are] in a safe and secure environment by making sure that the officer is visible throughout the day."
The Sandy Hook tragedy and others that preceded it have had a cumulative effect in raising awareness of law enforcement, school officials, parents and, even students, about security in the schools in the 14 years that have followed the deadly shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999, during which 13 students and teachers lost their lives and the two students responsible killed themselves.
A number of other shootings, some with higher death tolls, have occurred since, and the Sandy Hook tragedy in particular has spurred many school systems to add more exterior surveillance cameras, tighten visitor admissions policies and equip some teachers with panic buttons linked directly to police dispatchers and, in some cases, to equip principals and other administrators with firearms, according to several reports in the national media.
City stepped up
Locally, the swiftest action after Sandy Hook came last winter, when Havre de Grace's Mayor and City Council authorized their police department to place officers in the city's two elementary schools, in addition to the two which were already doing resource officer duty at the middle and high schools.
"The program has been very successful," Mayor Wayne Dougherty said Thursday. "I know each of our principals and vice principals, they have received nothing but positive [feedback] from the public."
The mayor said city officials had been working for about a year to place resource officers in the elementary schools.
The city council voted in late January to fund the two new officers, about five weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings.
Debbie Freels, principal of Meadowvale Elementary School, said during the January council meeting that an officer visited her school the day the shootings occurred to help review the school's security plan.
She said having a school resource officer assigned to the campus "not only made me feel more secure but it made my teachers and staff feel more secure and it made my parents feel more secure."
Training for all
Lt. Fred Budnick, public information officer for the Aberdeen Police Department, said the Columbine tragedy spurred school and law enforcement leaders to focus on greater school security.
Aberdeen Police have two school resource officers at schools in the city limits; one is assigned to Aberdeen High School and the other to Aberdeen Middle School and the three elementary schools in the city, as well as two others in the area that are part of the Aberdeen Middle feeder zone.
Budnick said Aberdeen police officers participate in "active shooter" training exercises with the Sheriff's Office and Havre de Grace Police.
"We've tried to maintain a good training environment for all of our officers, not just our school officers," he said.
Hopkins, of the Sheriff's Office, also said Columbine "planted the seed" for greater coordination on school security.
He said the officers who arrived at Columbine High School in 1999 were trained to respond to a hostage situation, in which a suspect barricaded himself or herself in a building, and the incident could continue for hours, with police remaining outside.
Officers today are trained to respond to "active shooter" situations by entering the building, "to go in and neutralize, stop that threat," Hopkins explained.
"We've realized over time, and sadly with multiple school shootings, that these events are over in a matter of minutes," he said.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, stated in a recent email that the school system "continues to improve and expand resources throughout the entire school system to ensure the safety of our students and staff at all times and works together with the security directors from the other 23 counties in the state on best practices for safety and security in schools."
Kranefeld said school officials take part in training sessions and maintain "ongoing partnerships" with their Citizen Advisory Committee, as well as local police, fire and emergency management agencies.
She declined to give specifics on "detailed security measures," but noted visitors to schools "will experience the added security measures in place."
"In conjunction with enhanced physical security, HCPS utilizes surveillance cameras, alarm systems, hand-held metal detectors, visitor management systems and specific building features, such as lighting and signage," Kranefeld stated.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun