In the wake of the deadly bombings in Boston and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, the Maryland State Board of Education on Tuesday approved new emergency planning guidelines meant to help local school systems better prepare for disaster.
"It's very timely that we're here today, given the events that occurred last week," said Chuck Buckler, executive director of the student services and strategic planning branch of the Maryland State Department of Education.
The 218-page document updates safety guidelines developed a decade ago and emphasizes the creation of individualized plans that address multiple hazards, from school shootings to tornadoes. But its developers were careful to stress that the text could only do so much.
It "means nothing" if the local school systems don't adopt it and put it into regular practice, said Sally Dorman, a psychological services specialist for the MSDE.
Among the recommendations are conducting an assessment of core buildings to determine how well they can weather different hazards, making sure that access to facilities is controlled, and requiring that schools conduct multiple drills for different scenarios — including severe weather, lockdowns, sheltering in place and evacuations — throughout the year.
School shootings in Baltimore County on the first day of school last August and in Newtown, Conn., where 26 elementary school students and staff members were fatally shot in December, demonstrated the need for a clear, concise strategy. Some area school systems reviewed their policies after the tragedies, but their commitment to implementing safety plans varies, Buckler acknowledged.
He added that new regulations governing how the systems put their plans in place are also in the works and will likely be brought to the board next month.
Board member Sayed M. Naved urged Buckler to develop a feedback mechanism through which school systems could report on the state of their implementation, saying that "the plan is no good if it's not put in place."
The guidelines were developed in partnership with local school systems and state agencies, including the Department of the Environment and Emergency Management Administration.
In an interview, student board member Ebe Inegbenebor, who attends New Town High School in Owings Mills, said she was cautiously optimistic about the guidelines.
"It makes me feel safer if the plan is actually used," Inegbenebor said. Still, she was skeptical that all schools will perform the required drills.
She and another Baltimore County student, Olivia Adams of Pikesville High School, made a presentation to the board about the county's efforts to eliminate another kind of threat to students: bullying.
On March 1, Baltimore County schools held a student-led "Anti-Bullying Day" that focused on positive ways to reduce abuse — physical or emotional — on campus. The program targeted young people directly, cutting out the middle man of school staff.
"If you want things to change, you have to talk about them," Adams told the school board. "Then you have to create action from that."
Board member Mary Kay Finan suggested that the teens educate others on their county's efforts.
"You should spread this across the state so other counties can learn from what you've done," she said.