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In 'full review' of safety and security plans, Harford schools look to implement active shooter drills

Harford County Public Schools is conducting a “full review” of its safety and security plans in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at a Florida high school, county Board of Education President Joseph Voskuhl said Monday evening.
Harford County Public Schools is conducting a “full review” of its safety and security plans in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at a Florida high school, county Board of Education President Joseph Voskuhl said Monday evening. (MATT BUTTON/THE AEGIS / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County Public Schools is conducting a “full review” of its safety and security plans in the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at a Florida high school, the county Board of Education president said Monday evening.

As part of that review, the new safety and security coordinator for HCPS said he is working on instituting an active shooter training program at every county public school.

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“Please be advised that we are conducting a full review of our safety and security plans as well as our training to ensure we are maximizing our efforts to prevent a tragedy,” board President Joseph Voskuhl said, after the board held a moment of silence for victims of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., at the start of the board’s first meeting since the tragedy. Nikolas Cruz, 19, has been charged in the shootings.

Voskhul said such incidents “cause us to reflect on our practices in Harford County Public Schools.”

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One idea that has gained traction following the shooting and even gaining the support of President Donald Trump, is allowing teachers to carry firearms. Harford County Del. Rick Impallaria filed House Bill 760 in Annapolis in January to give school districts across the state the authority to allow their employees who have state-issued handgun permits to carry weapons on school grounds.

School officials did not put that idea forth Monday, though. Voskuhl has said previously that he is personally opposed to the idea, and the majority of people who gave public comments on school safety said they are opposed to arming teachers.

“I have to tell you, we don’t want our schools to be prisons,” Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers’ union, said. “We don’t want our teachers to be prison guards, and frankly, arming teachers is not a solution — arming staff is not a solution.”

Securing schools

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There are 54 public schools in Harford County, and Voskuhl said each one has a critical incident plan “developed, vetted and approved” by the schools’ Department of Safety and Security.

He also outlined the procedures for visiting a school where doors are locked during the school day. Visitors must, once granted entry, proceed to the front office, show identification, sign in and wear a visitor’s badge while in the building.

Voskuhl said the school system works “very closely” with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments on safety and security matters. Those agencies also provide school resource officers assigned to elementary, middle and high schools.

“We are truly grateful to the Sheriff’s Office and the police officers in the three towns in Harford County,” Voskuhl said.

Donoven Brooks, coordinator of safety and security for HCPS, who has been on the job eight weeks, said he has been reviewing critical incident response plans with school principals and, more recently, investigating several potential threats against schools that have surfaced in recent days on social media following the Florida shootings.

Brooks, a veteran of the Air Force and the Baltimore City School Police, began working with Harford County Public Schools on Jan. 2, succeeding former safety and security head Robert Benedetto who retired in December 2017.

During a presentation to the school board Monday evening, he said he has been visiting schools, reviewing critical incident, evacuation and emergency management plans and was “pretty satisfied” with what he saw.

Brooks also works closely with local law enforcement agencies and coordinates with safety, and security officials in other school districts.

He reiterated the need to “not only see something say something, but also immediately while school is in session” to ensure a successful threat investigation.

The latest incident to be investigated took place was Monday morning when a Snapchat threat was made against Havre de Grace High School, as reported by the principal via Twitter Monday morning. Police said they were investigating the message, which contained “threatening language” toward the school community, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Two Edgewood High School students were arrested and charged as adults Friday after they wrote a false threatening message in an attempt to have school canceled, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office said.

Police said the students wrote the message on a the top of a classroom desk at the school and circulated an image of the message digitally. A student reported the message to officials, prompting an investigation by the school resource officer, police said.

“We’re taking every single threat or perceived threat or rumored threat … . We have to investigate them all the same and all the way to the end,” Brooks said.

Brooks said he is laying the groundwork to bring an active shooter training program to HCPS.

“Through the leadership of the superintendent [Barbara Canavan], we know that it is time to not only look at research, but adopt one of the programs,” he said.

He said there are several security programs available nationally, the most prominent being ALICE, or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. The Cecil County Public Schools have adopted ALICE, according to the school system website, and the Aberdeen Police Department hosted a training session for the public last December.

Brooks said he is working with the superintendent to put together a task force made up of “stakeholders on the ground,” — such as school administrators, teachers and school-based staff — to help implement active shooter training. He said he, Canavan and her top aides plan to attend a training session hosted by state education leaders in the spring.

Brooks said part of the task force’s job will be to determine how HCPS employees who attend training can pass their knowledge along to everyone in a school, including administrators, teachers, staff and students.

“We have to build capacity in every single person who’s inside the school building,” Brooks said.

Board response

School board member Robert Frisch, a former Baltimore City police officer and Baltimore County teacher, said school safety is a “multi-layered and multi-faceted issue,” and he stressed the need to secure buildings as well as train staff.

He said new and renovated buildings have secure entrances, where visitors are directed to the front office, but older buildings allow “unfettered access to the entire building” once a person gets in the front door.

“That is something that we need to consider as it relates to our funding because those modifications aren’t cheap,” he said.

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The school system gets the vast majority of its funding from the county and the state, and Frisch urged people to pay attention to what candidates in this year’s election are saying.

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“It certainly has a direct impact on what we can do as a school system to meet the needs of our students, our staff and the community as a whole,” he said.

Joe Licata, chief of administration for HCPS, said officials “ began to take a hard look” at securing facilities after the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.

Safety and security is incorporated into the design of new and renovated buildings, and the school system today has an extensive network of security cameras at buildings and on many buses, secured doors, communication systems tied in with law enforcement as well as regular drills at schools, Licata said.

Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said work is scheduled to begin this summer on enclosing open-space classrooms at Bel Air Elementary School, the last school in the county that has such classrooms.

He said the school can take part in lockdown drills and other emergency training once that work is complete.

Canavan asked the community, in light of the tragedy in Florida, “to hold their children very close, and I would also like to let them know that we are doing the same.”

“We need to work together to keep these children safe and happy and productive because if we work in isolation, we’ll never achieve that goal for them,” she said.

Arming teachers

Burbey urged greater investment in “restorative practices,” rather than harsh discipline such as expulsion — he claimed the expulsion of suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz from Douglas High School in Florida is “exactly what led” to the shooting, as he could not longer receive school services.

He said HCPS should provide additional services including more school psychologists and identify students who need help early so they don’t “get the inkling that the solution to their problem is, somehow, to go out and shoot up the school, that all along the way, they’re supported and valued and they’re treated medically and psychologically.”

Rachel Ashbrook, an Abingdon resident, who teaches English at North East High School in Cecil County, said the ALICE active shooter training is being implemented at North East High this year. She said she and her students have been trained that “the last thing we are to do” is touch a gun that has been wrestled away from an active shooter, and that if police see someone with their hand on a gun, then “you are the shooter and they will treat you as such.”

Ashbrook expressed concerns about the safety of teachers who might be heroes and stop a shooter, and the risk for students, especially students of color, of being shot if a teacher makes “a deadly mistake.”

“This is going to shatter a life and a trust that cannot be taken back,” she said.

Rita Hewitt, a resident of Belcamp and member of the community group Together We Will, posed a series of questions about allowing teachers to carry guns, such as the type of firearm and amount of ammunition, who pays to arm teachers, who trains and certifies them, whether all teachers and students know who is armed, how guns will be secured overnight, whether teachers will be allowed to carry during activities outside school, if parents should sign waivers in case students are shot by accident and whether teachers can take the lives of their colleagues or students if needed.

“Does anyone seriously think that these questions can be answered in ways that are going to make parents and children feel comfortable?” Hewitt asked. “Just some food for thought.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and Jessica Anderson contributed to this report.

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