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Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, right, answers a question as Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan, center, and Donoven Brooks, Chief of Safety and Security for the school system, left, listen during a recent school security town hall meeting.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, right, answers a question as Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan, center, and Donoven Brooks, Chief of Safety and Security for the school system, left, listen during a recent school security town hall meeting. (MATT BUTTON/THE AEGIS)

In the face of rising national concerns about school security, Harford County government, local law enforcement and the public school system are expected to announce next week a cooperative effort to improve public school safety.

County and school leaders, and Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler have heard from many students and parents who say Harford’s schools are not as safe as they could be. The comments follow the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 students and staff at a Florida high school, and the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County that left one student dead, another wounded and the shooter, also a student, dead at his own hand.

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Gahler, County Executive Barry Glassman and Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan and other local officials have scheduled a joint media briefing for 11 a.m. Tuesday at the county government administrative center in Bel Air, county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

Mumby said the briefing will be about “a new initial investment in public school safety.” She declined to be more specific.

The three leaders participated in a public forum on school security held March 1 at The John Carroll School in Bel Air, which was prompted by the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

During the forum, several speakers urged the trio to deploy more police officers to school buildings.

Currently, all 10 Harford public high schools have an officer assigned to them from either the Sheriff’s Office or the municipal police departments of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace; however, only a few of the county’s middle schools have an officer on duty during the school day and only the two elementary schools, both in Havre de Grace, have an officer on duty. In Bel Air, the town police department has a single officer daily covering the high school, middle school, three elementary school buildings and two private schools, John Carroll and St. Margaret.

The public school system has 34 elementary schools — two of which have two buildings — and nine middle schools. In addition to the 10 high schools, there are secondary school students attending the alternative education program held at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, which has had a police officer assigned to it, according to county officials. There are also a number of private schools in the county.

During the March 1 forum, both Glassman and Gahler said deploying officers at every school would cost millions of dollars annually. In an earlier interview with The Aegis, Glassman said he favors looking at hiring retired law enforcement officers who could be employed on a part-time basis during the school day, while acknowledging that would still be a considerable expense.

One Harford school, Joppatowne High, suffered a serious security breach on March 13, when four juvenile males, ages 14 and 15, who do not attend the school, gained entry and, according to the Sheriff’s Office, assaulted an 18-year-old student in the cafeteria, sending him to the hospital. The school resource officer on duty, a sheriff’s deputy, spotted one of the assailants as the deputy responded to the cafeteria and gave chase. Responding deputies arrested all four, who face various charges as juveniles.

Following that incident, a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said it had not been determined how the outsiders got into the school, but the incident raised a number of questions about the security of Harford school buildings.

HCPS officials, however, have insisted the buildings are secure and there are protocols in place to properly screen people trying to gain entry. They have also acknowledged, however, that there is a wide divergence in designs of school buildings whose ages range from a few months, in the case of Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, to 40 or more years as in the case of Havre de Grace High and Middle schools, Southampton Middle, Darlington Elementary and Joppatowne High.

The two Havre de Grace secondary schools are due to be replaced by a single building, costing some $87 million. The groundbreaking is planned for next month.

The Youth’s Benefit Elementary building, completed in November, has the latest in security equipment, HCPS reports. But in February, a reporter from The Aegis was admitted to the building and the school office without being asked to provide identification.

In response to a request this week about security designs at Youth’s Benefit Elementary and those contemplated for the new Havre de Grace building, Joseph Licata, HCPS chief of administration, responded by email:

“Both schools have been designed and constructed to incorporate best practices for safety and security. This includes security cameras, site design, building layout, and visitor management systems. We continue to monitor and review safety and security practices including review of systems that will assist us in keeping our buildings safe and secure. We have also established a task force to assist us as we continue to review best practices in all of our buildings.”

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Aegis staff members David Anderson, Erika Butler and Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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