More cameras, security in Howard schools a year after forming safety task force

A year after Howard County created a school safety task force in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, the county's public schools have more security features than before and are on their way to getting more, County Executive Ken Ulman announced. 

The county's elementary schools will all have integrated buzzers, visitor badging and camera and communications systems by the end of the year, Ulman said. Middle schools are next, with full security-feature installation by spring 2014. An automated visitor management system will be in place in county high schools by July 2014. 

And video surveillance systems in all schools are now connected to the county's emergency dispatch center in Ellicott City. If an emergency is reported in a school building, a dispatcher will be able to pull up camera footage from classrooms, hallways and the school's exterior, so that officers responding to the scene can receive real-time updates from inside the building. 

"When we saw what happened in Connecticut... we said let's take a comprehensive review" of safety in schools, Ulman said. He said he wanted to see results, not just studies. 

"This wasn't a report that sat on the shelf," he said. 

"No priority is higher than the safety of our children," Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said of the task force's work. "Part of being a world-class school system is creating a culture where children are secure. We are doing that." 

The buzzer, badging and camera systems cost about $1 million in state and local matching funds, according to the county. Linking the video surveillance systems to the dispatch center had a limited start-up cost, because most of the IT resources existed already. 

Other measures in the school safety task force's action plan include adding magnetic card access points for portable classrooms, expanding the number of safe indoor spaces for students to shelter during a lockdown, training teachers and school staff in security protocols and emergency procedures and improving communication about existing mental health supports in the school system. 

Police Chief William McMahon said the task force hoped to create a culture shift that encourages everyday consideration of safety measures. 

"It's not just about technology," he said. "It's about creating a culture of good practices -- checking IDs, not propping doors open.

"I think the school security task force in a very, very short period of time, has done a tremendous amount of work," he added.  

School Board member Ellen Flynn Giles called the task force's efforts "an example of communication and collaboration" that is creating "an infrastructure we can build upon."

She, McMahon and Ulman all pledged to continue to make school safety improvements. "We are in it for the long haul," Flynn Giles said. 

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