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Harford County

Harford County Public Schools officials address safety concerns at virtual town hall

Mental health, bullying prevention, and school safety and security were the focus of a Harford County Public Schools virtual town hall on Wednesday evening.

For the past two years, the school system primarily has focused on COVID-19 safety measures because students were at home learning for the most part, HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson said before the start of the town hall. Now, since the pandemic has subsided and students will return to classrooms, the school system plans to refocus on other critical issues.

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“During the pandemic, we had other priorities since people weren’t even in school most of the time, so dealing with those physical threats wasn’t much of a priority,” Bulson said. “Just this past year, we have revisited the training to help staff and students know how to respond to any critical incident of that nature.”

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Representatives from the Harford County Public Schools Parent Academy, Safety and Security Office, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and other county law enforcement agencies, worked together to develop a safety and security plan that brings together educators, parents, mental health professionals and law enforcement.

“The hardest thing is focusing on relationships and communication,” Bulson said. “Knowing your students and understanding your students. Know your community and understanding your community – that’s the foundation of safety and security.”

In June, the school system’s Office of Research and Program Evaluation released a crisis preparedness report with data on internal threats and disciplinary action from 2018 through the past school year.

School officials held conversations with students, parents, staff, law enforcement, business leaders and community members about safety and security in all schools and offices. The participants completed surveys — there were 923 responses ― and the data was used to develop key findings and recommendations for the report.

In February and March, Stacey Gerringer and Donoven Brooks, the co-chairs of the safety and security work group, hosted a series of focus groups and stakeholder meetings to gather input for updating and improving county public school safety and security procedures after the post-pandemic school reopening, according to the report.

“When we started at looking at safety and security going into the upcoming school year, we knew it was going to be different,” said Eric Davis, chief of administration. “Over the past 2 1/2years we were focused on COVID, but now we would like to establish what Mr. Brooks likes to call that muscle memory for our 5,000 staff members.”

In the town hall, Gerringer, who is principal at Abingdon Elementary School, and Brooks, supervisor of safety and security for county schools, along with other officials highlighted three key findings that the school system will focus on in the upcoming school year:

1. Increase the frequency of safety training and critical incident drills at county public schools.

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2. Work with law enforcement partners to establish a unified command structure.

3. Establish prevention training for parents, students and staff.

The school system has added more safety training by giving school staff and administration experience to prepare them for critical incidents with tabletop and active assailant training, Brooks said.

Tabletop training has staff and administration gather and role play to train for any critical incident, and an active assailant training has staff and administration drilling an active shooter/assailant situation.

Harford County Public Schools has enhanced its communication channels with law enforcement partners and other authorities placed in schools to establish a unified command structure. The school system is in the process of releasing a phone application that will notify people with push notification on incidents at schools in the county, said Jillian Lader, the school system’s manager of communications.

The school system is also encouraging anyone who sees something to say something and notify the closest authority in the school building where they are located, Brooks said.

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Alerts will be shared with one of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office points of contact at the school, and all officers have a direct line to Lader. Once she receives the information, it can be immediately transmitted to law enforcement, faculty and parents with the new app.

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The app is still in development and no date was given for the its launch.

In addition to updated communication channels, the school system has upgraded its preventive strategies, planning to focus on tending to a student’s mental health while adding school safety liaisons and social workers.

Currently, the school system has 10 mental health providers and 20 school social workers, the most the school system has ever had, said Buck Hennigan, executive director of student services.

There are 18 new school safety liaisons to ease small incidents among students to prevent bigger ones, Brooks said. Also, schools will have emotional wellness teams and threat assessment teams as preventive measures.

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The school system has changed its bullying, harassment and intimidation policy. Harford County Public Schools have bullying and harassment modules created by the school system’s middle and high school students, said Paula Stanton, supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency.

The school system will also be teaching students how to use social media properly at the beginning of the school year, Stanton said. They will be teaching students about their digital footprints, oversharing and appropriate behaviors on social media, Stanton said. Additionally, the school system plans to continue this work throughout the school year with regional parent academy workshops, which is first of its kind, Davis said.

Harford County Public Schools' officials addressed safety concerns at virtual town hall on Wednesday evening. Left to right, Mary Stapleton, HCPS Parent Academy; Eric Davis, HCPS chief of administration; Donoven Brooks, chief of security and co-chair of the safety and security work group; Stacey Gerringer, principal, Abingdon Elementary School and co-chair of the safety and security work group; Buck Hennigan, executive director of student services; Paula Stanton, supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency; and Jillian Lader, manager of communications.

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