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baltimoresun.com

Howard task force issues school safety report; work to start immediately

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

5:34 PM EDT, March 18, 2013

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When the Joint Task Force on School Safety was established in Howard County days after the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., members of the school system, government and police were charged with reviewing school safety and to find ways to improve it

It wasn't a study that was going to last "a couple years," but rather a few months, said County Executive Ken Ulman Monday, March 18 at a news conference at Thunder Hill Elementary in Columbia. That way, he said, the county can immediately begin taking steps to make schools safer.

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

The Joint Task Force on School Safety shared its final report at the news conference. The report includes 11 recommendations to improve the safety and security of the school building and the people inside it.

Some of those recommendations already are in place at Thunder Hill Elementary. Recent renovations have placed the main office in the front of the building, where visitors must first buzz into a secure vestibule before entering.

"As the school system has renovated buidings we have focused on these areas, and now you're going to see an increased focus," Ulman said.

Superintendent Renee Foose said that after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, parents and community members repeatedly asked what the school system does regarding student safety, and what it could do better.

"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.

Foose said she was committed to putting in place as many recommendations as quickly as possible.

Ulman said the county would "immediately" begin investing $2 million in the school system to go toward measures such as buzz-in systems and security cameras.

The timeline for the recommendations vary; some changes will be put in place right away, others will be in place by the end of 2013. Still others are more long-term, and some are ongoing.

The recommendations include:

* Improve the physical security features of schools across the county

* Strengthen school security practices at all schools and ensure consistency in implementation across the school system.

* Ensure that all school personnel are trained at least annually on its specific emergency response plan

* Non-school users of the school facilities must be familiar with each school's emergency plan

* Non-public schools need to have effective emergency response plans for their schools. As with public schools, responsible parties must be trained on plans, and the plans must be exercised

* Ensure post-incident resources are available for survivors, victim's families, police and emergency staff

* Ensure community recovery is considered in development community emergency response plans

* Improve communication to ensure parents, students and the community are aware of the school system efforts to create positive school cultures in each building

* Incorporate a school climate focus area into each school's improvement planning process

* Increase communication to staff, parents, students and the community regarding mental health access and supports available both in the school and in the community

* Provide professional learning to school staff that supports students' social and emotional well-being, demystifies mental health concerns, and identifies available school and community resources