With highly publicized school shootings last spring in Florida and Maryland on their minds, education officials in the Baltimore region have taken steps ahead of the new school year to prevent similar attacks. That’s meant beefing up physical security on campuses, adding security officers and mental health counselors, and training teachers and administrators.
In Baltimore County, where safety has been a top priority since a 15-year-old shot another student in 2012 at Perry Hall High School, officials have launched a multifaceted approach.
“We know that it is unlikely that we will have to face an active shooter situation,” Superintendent Verletta White said in a statement. “But the stakes are so high that we must take advantage of the latest best practices and be prepared.”
This summer, 332 administrators, police officers, central office staff and teachers took a two-day instructor certification course in active shooter response training. They, in turn, will train the rest of the county’s school staff. The course is called ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate, and is more extensive than the active shooter training given previously in many schools.
St. Mary's County officials recounted how they responded to the deadly shooting at Great Mills High School to an audience of state government and school leaders at the Maryland Center for School Safety Summer Conference.
Baltimore City schools has taken a strategic approach to increasing security. Officials will deploy school police based on the number of incidents at schools, and will be outfitting schools that have experienced safety issues with more cameras. In addition, all administrators and school police are getting more training on threats and lock-downs.
“The safety of our school communities is our top priority. We continue to deploy our school police strategically, and to ensure that staff members are trained in emergency response,” said Edie House Foster, a spokesperson for the city school system.
Mass school shootings are still rare, according to research by James Alan Fox of Northeastern University: Since 1996, there have been 16 multiple-victim shootings in schools, or incidents involving four or more victims and at least two deaths, excluding the assailant. — and more kids die each year in bicycle accidents.
Nevertheless, the horrific deaths of 17 people at a Parkland, Fla. high school spurred students to organize a protest in Washington, D.C. and a road campaign called March for Our Lives. The national discussion on guns has been renewed, with some calling for tighter controls. On the other side, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reported to be considering allowing states to use federal dollars to purchase guns for teachers.
The Parkland shooting as well as a deadly school shooting this year in St. Mary’s County also spurred sweeping legislation in Annapolis that will direct more money and resources toward keeping kids safe in the classroom. A law signed by Gov. Larry Hogan in April will soon begin showing concrete signs in Maryland schools.
By Sept. 1, local school systems are required to appoint a mental health services coordinator and a school safety coordinator. They must also report to the state how many of their high schools are covered by school resource officers. It's the first of several steps school districts are required to take in the next few years. By next summer, the districts will need to conduct safety evaluations of every school in their jurisdiction.
More money will also soon be available to districts to make safety improvements, including $40.6 million in the 2019 fiscal year budget for school safety.
Suburban counties are beginning to take additional steps to ensure school safety, including placing their first police officers — commonly called school resource officers — in schools or adding them at lower grade levels. Large high schools in many districts already have a police officer assigned to them.
Resource officers became commonplace in schools after the deadly 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, said Ed Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 school resource officers nationwide.
“The role [of a school resource officer] is not to arrest students,” Clarke said. “It’s about prevention and intervention and helping students who might be in crisis.”
In Anne Arundel County, students can expect to see 10 new school resource officers, along with security cameras, double-barrier doorways and upgraded locks at various schools in the district, according to school and police officials. Anne Arundel County Police also will introduce bulletproof shields to every school in the district, said police spokesman Marc Limansky.
Two students were injured and a third, the gunman, was killed at Great Mills High School in Southern Maryland just before the first bell of the day on Tuesday. Students recount the terror of realizing there was a shooting at their school.
“When there is an incident somewhere in the country, we hear parent concerns,” said Carroll County school spokesman Carey Gaddis
In Howard County, a newly formed Office of Safety and Security has developed emergency operation plans and training for school staff. Middle schools are getting school resource officers and a buzz-in system is in place at every school building for visitors.
Brandon Oland, a Baltimore County school spokesman, said 17,000 school employees have been given online training in what to do in the event of an active shooter, the first step in a program that will continue during the school year with in-person classes. Once trained, the staff will give the new protocols to students. All students already receive active shooter drills.
“We want our community and school officials to be prepared ,” Oland said.
Baltimore County also is adding resource officers to some of its elementary schools, and is increasing security at school entrances by adding buzz-in systems, as well as digital cameras and background checks for visitors. Some of its schools have had those security enhancements for several years.
The school system also is working to better identify students in need of psychological help by adding more than 50 psychologists, school counselors and social workers.
On August 21, the Baltimore County school board approved White’s central office reorganization, which gives greater prominence to a new Division of School Climate and Safety to deal with both the physical and social well-being of students.
The school system also will soon release a new safety plan.