Baltimore Co. seeks to identify school threats

School Superintendent Dallas Dance said the school system will launch a new Office of Safety and Security after the second gun incident in two weeks.
School Superintendent Dallas Dance said the school system will launch a new Office of Safety and Security after the second gun incident in two weeks. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

As he rode the morning school bus and sat in first-period class Tuesday, the 13-year-old student at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex gave no indication that he had a cellphone-size gun in his pocket — much less that he planned to pull it on his classmates and teacher, according to official reports.

But other clues — vaguely alarming comments to classmates, unorthodox or unusual changes in behavior — were likely there in the preceding days, weeks or months, waiting to be identified and pieced into a pattern, say experts on school shootings.

"One hundred percent of kids broadcast intent beforehand," said James McGee, retired director of psychology and forensic services at Sheppard Pratt Hospital and former chief psychologist of the Baltimore County Police Department. "Perfectly normal people don't suddenly snap and take a gun into school."

As county officials develop procedures for preventing violence following the Stemmers Run incident and a shooting at Perry Hall High, McGee and others are calling for a focus on improving communication among students, teachers, and administrators in the 106,000-student system.

Administrators need to tap into the gossip that dominates middle school and high school social scenes, and train teachers on the type of student behavior that should push them to compare notes, experts say. Such improvements in communication will lead to safer schools more readily than metal detectors or similar measures, they add.

"Can you imagine, every day, a thousand kids passing through a metal detector that has someone sitting there monitoring the thing?" McGee said. "In terms of the actual payoff, it just doesn't make sense."

Instead, administrators must use students and teachers as their eyes and ears to identify students who are in need of an intervention, said Katherine S. Newman, author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings."

"Unless you're monitoring a gazillion Facebook sites or something, it's very hard for people outside of those [school] communication circles to spot these random outbursts," said Newman, dean of the Johns Hopkins University's Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "The best policy is trying to make it as easy as possible to let kids come forward."

McGee said that in a study of 20 planned school shootings, 17 were prevented because a female student came forward with information about the would-be shooter. "Other kids know who these guys are beforehand," he said.

Last week, county schools reminded students to report suspicious behavior to adults.

Already in Baltimore County, teachers, counselors and others charged with overseeing the performance and well-being of students face a changing landscape of individual needs and issues.

The number of students who qualify, because of a low family income, for free or reduced-price meals has jumped drastically. While 16 percent of high school students received the meals in 2001, 38 percent received them in 2011. Among middle-schoolers, the number jumped from 29 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2011.

In many public schools, "we've got so many kids that are coming to school without the kind of basic resources that families and communities have traditionally provided," said Courtland Lee, professor in the school counseling program at the University of Maryland's College of Education. "Schools have to be more sensitive to the comprehensive needs of students … Because they're not being addressed anywhere else, I think the challenge is: How can schools pick up the slack?"

Schools must also understand the needs of students from different backgrounds, including various types of families, such as those headed by grandparents, single parents and same-sex couples, he said.

County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance wants to review the system's staffing levels for counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends that a counselor have 250 students at most. In some county schools, a counselor has 450 students, Dance said.

"The counselors who have 450 kids do an amazing job," he said, "but I think as we look at our staffing formulas throughout the year ... we will have to make sure that school support services stays on the forefront, because we are dealing with students who have things they need to talk about, and we need to provide them with people who they can talk about them with."

County schools ensure that middle and high schools get more counselors as their student populations grow, said Tim Hayden, coordinator of school counseling.

Dance added that "every single kid in every single school deserves to have someone in that building who knows their name, and it doesn't need to be a counselor, psychologist and social worker. It can be a teacher, a custodian, a cafeteria worker — but they need to feel connected to somebody. If they feel connected to one person in that building, they can go to that person when they're having some issues."

County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who lives next to Perry Hall High, would like to see more resources for students struggling at home.

"You're seeing more problems like violence, bullying, and even extraordinary issues like the homeless population, that are all impacting our schools," he said. "With increases in poverty, you get changes in the school-age population, but you also don't have the businesses to support a school and you also don't have the community fabric that's needed for a school to succeed."

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, pointed out that in both gun-related incidents, teachers or staffers intervened to prevent more violence.

At Stemmers Run, a female teacher "grappled" with the student holding the gun until he dropped it, said officials, who did not identify the teacher or student. At Perry Hall High, 15-year-old Robert Gladden Jr. was wrestled to the ground by guidance counselor Jesse Wasmer, and got off just two rounds, one of which hit 17-year-old Daniel Borowy, according to police.

But Beytin said that even when teachers sense "red flags," they are not always trained on what to do next.

"Teachers in particular are concerned about not having the tools necessary," she said. "I think they're clamoring for ways to get more information."

Acting bravely at a moment's notice and properly assessing risk ahead of time are two separate things — and teachers aren't trained for the latter, McGee said. "Trying to get educators to do violence risk assessment is like trying to get a cop off the streets and [into] a classroom to teach U.S. history."

McGee said Baltimore County should create "a multidisciplinary threat assessment committee, so when the English teacher gets a kid's diary and it has suicidal thoughts and references to Columbine and things like that, they don't try to assess it themselves. That committee should determine if there is enough information about this kid to warrant an assessment, and then when they've made that decision, they punt it to someone who actually has a background in violence risk assessment."

McGee said that before the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 the English department faculty and school administrators had noticed the shooter's troubling behavior. Yet the student never received the professional help he needed.

"Imagine if [the university's] heating and air conditioning failed, and they got their English faculty and school administration to fix it," McGee said. "No. You'd call in the pros."

Newman said her research has also shown that police officers stationed in schools play an important role in encouraging students to come forward with troubling information. Students "were more likely to come forward to them than they were to school authorities. They see them as more independent and as people with investigative resources or skills."

Baltimore County has about 60 school resource officers. Each high school has from one to three officers, according to the Police Department. And all but five of the county's middle schools have an officer.

Still, Newman cautioned against eyeing specific students for potential violence, because it is extremely difficult to create a "profile" of likely shooters.

"Generalizing from very rare events is always risky," Newman said. "We don't know what kinds of circumstances produce shooters; we can't predict where they come from. … It's a false comfort to think we could figure out in advance what sort of person does this."

The FBI offers a similar caveat in its report, "The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective," which provides a model for evaluating school-based threats.

"This model is not a 'profile' of the school shooter or a checklist of danger signs pointing to the next adolescent who will bring lethal violence to a school. Those things do not exist," the report says.

The FBI report nevertheless lists a range of behaviors that should be carefully reviewed if a student is perceived to have made a real or veiled threat of violence. Among them: poor coping skills, depression, narcissism, anger, inappropriate humor, dehumanizing others, and externalizing blame.

Newman said her research shows school shooters are "very often trying to correct what they perceive is a damaged reputation as a loser among peers" and often verbalize their intentions to do something dramatic or violent.

Sometimes, they promise such actions so much that they eventually become teased for not carrying through, she said. "By that time, they feel that they've painted themselves into a corner, and they feel that they have to do what they've been saying they are going to do."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.