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Immediacy and safety in Howard schools at center of report

Renee FooseKen UlmanPTA

When visitors come to Thunder Hill Elementary School in Columbia, they are first greeted not by teachers, students or receptionists, but by a locked door and an intercom. A vestibule separates the outside from the inside, and people are navigated directly into the front office to sign in.

That wasn't always the case. Renovations and an addition completed in 2012 established the buzzer system, installed 32 security cameras in and around the building and moved the main office to the front of the building. During the school day, all side and back doors are locked, and can only be opened from either side by a staff member with an access card.

Because of those changes, said Principal John Birus, Thunder Hill is a much safer place.

"We have better control over who's coming in during the school day," said Birus. Because of where the office is "we visually put our eyes on every person that comes in. It's been very helpful," he added.

The measures put in place at Thunder Hill and nearby Phelps Luck Elementary can serve as an "ideal" model for other schools in Howard County, said the school system's Director of School Facilities, Wayne Crosby.

While improved security measures like buzz-ins and vestibules are part of new schools and renovations in recent years, the school system is looking to do a lot more when it comes to school safety, and very quickly.

Howard County's Joint Task Force on School Safety, established days after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left more than two dozen dead, issued its final report March 18, and local school and county officials gathered at Thunder Hill for the occasion.

The task force was charged with looking at the physical security of buildings, emergency responses and the environment of the school community. The recommendations were released in just a few months, said County Executive Ken Ulman, so the county can start making schools safer — immediately.

"This is not a plan that's going to sit on anybody's shelf," Ulman said. "This is a plan that's going to be implemented right away."

An 'even higher level' of safety

All told, the report includes 11 recommendations to improve the safety of school buildings and the people inside them. Superintendent Renee Foose said she was committed to putting as many recommendations in place as quickly as possible.

"The tragedy in Connecticut and the escalating reports of violence really prompted us to take very quick action," Foose said. "We want to make sure that we're doing all we can to ensure the physical safety and well-being of our students."

Foose said the comprehensive report reaffirms the current safety of the school system, but outlined specific measures that, when implemented, will take the schools to an "even higher level" of safety.

For example, the report recommends that integrated buzzers, visitor badging and camera and communications systems be in all elementary and middle schools by the end of 2013. No buzzer systems exist at county high schools, but the report calls for a pilot of such a system at one high school at the beginning of next school year.

Currently, about 50 schools are in need of a buzzer system, and 40 are in need of computerized badging systems, according to the report.

By the end of 2013, according to the report, the school system will also expand the exterior camera surveillance systems and swipe-card access points for portable classrooms.

Ulman announced Monday that the county would "almost immediately" begin investing $2 million in the school system to go toward those security measures.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat and former Board of Education member, said it was important to have a buzzer system in every school. At Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City, a buzzer was installed with money raised by the PTA, Watson said, but now "we're going to be able to provide this no matter what the PTAs or boosters or budget can afford."

Schools ae 'hubs of activity'

One of the issues outlined by the report is inconsistencies in school safety procedures across the county, said Police Chief Bill McMahon.

"From the physical security standpoint, many schools — like the newer ones — are in great shape, but others need retrofitted," he said. "There's inconsistencies throughout the schools in terms of physical technology (like the buzzer system), but also in terms of emergency response planning."

The report recommends aligning practices across the county, and making sure all personnel — including non-school personnel like Columbia Association and the Department of Recreation and Parks employees — are properly trained on what to do in an emergency.

"One thing we quickly found out is just how many (people) there are who use the schools," said McMahon, who chaired the task force's committee on emergency planning. "These schools are hubs of activity from 6 a.m. to 10-11 p.m., and not all are school activities. We have to figure out how, for non-traditional school users, to make sure their events are safe as well."

At Thunder Hill, where after-school activities include recreational sports and Girl Scout meetings, Birus said custodians have weekly event schedules and allow groups into the school building as needed.

County Councilman Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, said having consistency across the system in terms of emergency procedures is important, and the report offered "an opportunity to ensure that all of our schools are operating in the most safe way. There are some best practices that some of our schools are employing, and implementing those best practices across the school system is needed."

Ultimately, said Board of Education member Ellen Giles, the report "reaffirms our commitment" to school safety, and to establish common practices and a common understanding across the county regarding safety and security.

"It's about building trust across the school system; by using the same vocabulary, the same processes, it makes us all feel safer," Giles said. "It comes back to 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' "

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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