Editorial: School violence is a threat worth taking seriously

Shortly after public school students returned to classes last week in Harford County, the optimism that comes with a new year was darkened by tragedy in a neighboring community.

The story is familiar to just about everyone in the Baltimore area: A teenager from Kingsville is charged as an adult in connection with the shooting of a special needs student at Perry Hall High School.

That no one was killed came as a lone bit of good news from the horrific situation. Similarly, an act of heroism on the part of a teacher, who tackled the shooter, is credited with preventing the incident from becoming a large scale rampage.

Clearly, there are lessons from this incident to be learned by Harford County school system leaders, the most important of which is it could happen here.

Going back the 13 years of a student's K-12 basic school career to April 20, 1999 and the watershed Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, the prevailing attitude initially expressed by the Harford County Public Schools leadership was somewhere between cavalier indifference and a general fatalism that there's no way to prevent such a crime.

Since then, the attitude has shifted. School security is vastly improved.

Most importantly, there are procedures in place to deal with varying threat levels. An incident of substantial concern occurred last Wednesday, just two days after the Perry Hall shooting, at the campus of Edgewood High and Middle schools on Willoughby Beach Road. A man, wearing only his underwear, was on the school system grounds, prompting the leadership of the school system to lock down both buildings. The man was taken into custody by police and then taken for a psychiatric evaluation.

It turned out to be a relatively minor incident, though the disruption to the school day was undoubtedly substantial. The lockdown precaution, however, was certainly warranted. If nothing else, it shows that potentially threatening situations are being treated with a level of seriousness.

Does this mean the lax attitudes of the past have been overcome? Hard to say, but the response at Edgewood is certainly better than if police had been called and everything at the schools had been allowed to go on as if nothing happened.

When it comes to security, perception is very important. If the perception is that nothing is being done to ensure safety, those apt to be threats to safety may well feel more empowered. If the perception is that small acts of disruption will result in a powerful response, possibly schools will be less vulnerable to those who plot violence.

Certainly, it's true that a determined insurgent is difficult to stop, but that doesn't make failing to prepare an appropriate response acceptable. At least in the Edgewood incident, it appears the Harford School System has taken the appropriate path of doing something rather than just letting things run their course.

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