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Improving safety in county schools

Every day, more than 106,000 students cross the thresholds onto Baltimore County's school campuses and into our school buildings, and we assume responsibility not just for their education but also for their safety. In the first three weeks of this school year, two separate gun-related incidents have shaken our community and raised questions about the security of our schools.

For the last seven school years combined, fewer than nine students have been caught with guns in our schools. According to federal Gun-Free Schools Act reports, nationally, the average number of gun-related incidents in schools ranges around five or six per 100,000 students. Doing better than average, however, is not acceptable to Baltimore County Public Schools or to our community.

Our schools must be safe for all students and staff. Without that, schools cannot be effective centers for teaching and learning. At the same time, schools are a part of the larger society they serve, and because of that, the troubles of that larger society continually impinge on the sheltered environments we seek to maintain.

This is an issue created by our culture and our society, and it is one that must be solved by our community — not just this school system. Maryland law requires that handguns kept in homes be secured from access and use by children. Yet time and time again, across this nation, children bring guns from their homes into schools.

While we are working to elevate this already strong school system into the best school system in the nation and to ensure that this already safe school system becomes even safer, we cannot do that without the involvement of our community.

When I began my tenure as superintendent, not quite three months ago, I was impressed with the strength of the school system's crisis plans and procedures and with its Critical Incident Response Team. This group brings representatives of all key school system functions together in one room to oversee school-based or systemwide emergencies as they occur. Regular training sessions and drills ensure that Critical Incident Response Team members are adept in collaboration and well-versed in developing contingency plans for a wide range of situations.

As a first response to what has happened in the last few weeks, our Critical Incident Response Team has debriefed about the shooting at Perry Hall High School on the first day of school, and a leadership team has been assembled to take immediate steps to further strengthen our plans and procedures. I have announced that I will be expanding our Office of Security into the Office of School Safety and Security and providing it with additional resources. This office will ensure that current and forthcoming safety initiatives are sound and that they are uniformly enacted systemwide. We appreciate the continued support of the county executive as we move forward with implementing security enhancements.

This expansion of the Office of School Safety and Security is critical. Each week we review non-instructional/non-school based vacant positions, and decisions are made to fill or to redirect the funding to other key needs. This position will be created by redirecting funding from unfilled vacant positions.

Even before the Office of School Safety and Security begins its work, we will be working with school principals and teachers to review and enhance existing crisis plans and procedures, systemwide and for each school. Our principals are also reaching out to staff, students and parents to remind them about our current safety procedures, urge them to call tip hotlines if they have any concerns about students or situations, and implore them to follow state laws regarding how guns are secured in their homes.

The message for our parents and for the community is that school safety depends on all of us. Since I arrived here, I have been referring to BCPS and its stakeholders as Team BCPS. As a team, we all have responsibilities to each other and specific roles to play, but one responsibility we all share is student safety, and this responsibility extends beyond simply keeping guns out of our schools or reacting appropriately if they do find their way into our schools. Student safety also encompasses looking out for warning signs of student distress and violence — whatever its cause might be — and working to prevent it by promoting student and parent involvement and engagement; encouraging student appreciation for diversity; taking swift action to address bullying; and intervening quickly with additional support when students show signs of mental illness or emotional disturbance.

Our shared goal is that all of our students graduate from our school system as healthy, well-rounded individuals ready to excel in higher education, careers and life, and that all of our schools operate as safe learning communities. Our success will depend on how much each of us contributes toward this goal.

Dallas Dance is superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. His email is ddance@bcps.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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