After Sandy Hook, steps to improve school safety in Howard County

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last month will forever change schooling, said Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose, and there can be no guarantee that something "so unnatural" can't happen locally.

But schools can be made safer, and communities stronger, Foose said, and a Joint Task Force on School Safety is looking at ways to do just that.

"We can't ever, 100 percent, prevent bad things from happening, but what can we do to minimize the odds?" said County Executive Ken Ulman, who announced the formation of the task force Dec. 17. "In everything we do, we can always do better."

Ulman and Foose both spoke at the first community forum held by the task force Tuesday, Jan. 8 at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. About 200 people attended the forum; the response from the public was so great that a second forum was scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14, also at Wilde Lake.

The task force is broken up into three subcommittees: one charged to look at the physical security and security protocols in schools, chaired by the schools' acting Chief of Operations and Finance Ken Roey, one looking at emergency planning, chaired by Howard Chief of Police Bill McMahon, and one focused on safe and nurturing schools and community, chaired by the schools' Executive Director of School Improvement and Administration, Bill Ryan.

The subcommittees — made up by representatives from the school system, county government, fire, police and rescue staff, the county's public and mental health departments, students and parents — will meet throughout January and February, and present their findings to Ulman, Foose and the Board of Education in March.

"We need short-term outcomes and long-term outcomes, recognizing that school security is a dynamic process you continue to respond to," Foose said. "You can't predict what these events are going to be."

Ways to improve

For an hour, audience members broke into focus groups to discuss what they felt worked, and did not work, in each of the areas being explored by the task force.

Suggestions ran the gamut from locking doors, monitoring cameras, doing background checks on school volunteers, placing an armed police officer in every school and arming teachers.

Many of the suggested improvements are things that are already being done in county schools, said Kevin Burnett, coordinator of security for the school system, but "consistency is likely an issue" addressed by the task force. Quarterly, Burnett said, members of his staff review security at schools, checking the perimeter of the buildings for unlocked doors, and seeing how far into the school they can get without being questioned. They then report to the school's principal and discuss ways to improve safety.

There currently are armed student resource officers — who are members of the Howard County Police Department — at all county high schools, and six who rotate among middle schools, but none at the elementary level. Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said there were no plans to arm teachers or administrators.

John Fritz, of Elkridge, identified one area in which he felt the school system could improve: communication, especially after McMahon said police and schools sometimes work together when a student makes threats to ensure that threat isn't realized — preventative measures that aren't made public.

"I hope there's raised awareness, just people knowing what's going on (in the schools), both good and bad," said Fritz, who has children at Long Reach High School and Bellows Springs Elementary School. "There's an obligation of knowing, relevant to those issues. ... I understand the right people have to privacy, but as a parent, I tend to err on wanting to know more rather than less."

Ben Fisher, 16, a junior at Atholton High School in Columbia, said the drills and lockdowns should be taken more seriously when they occur.

"They're viewed more as an annoyance than a precaution," he said. "At least once a year, we need to make sure that in an actual emergency, this would work."

Fisher said he felt safe attending Atholton. Christine Martin, of Clarksville, whose two children have graduated from the school system said that though she was "overly protective," and concerned about bullying and who had access to her children's schools, something like the tragedy at Sandy Hook seemed "unfathomable" to her.

"It made me sick to my stomach," she said. "We need more awareness ... When something is very fresh, everyone is on high alert, but then it dies down. Will our security be as effective then?"

Fritz said he wished he could tell his daughter, who just stopped having nightmares, that "it's going to be fine," but he can't.

"I'm sure the parents at Sandy Hook thought their kids were going to be fine, too," he said. "I hope the board and the county respond accordingly to this heightened level of concern. I don't think we can prevent, but I do think we can prepare."

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