Lessons learned: St. Mary's officials discuss response to Great Mills shooting at school safety conference

James Scott Smith says he remembers every moment of March 20, the longest and worst day of his life.

The St. Mary’s County Schools superintendent remembers what he was wearing — a gray suit with a blue tie. He remembers what his car smelled like — a bit stale. And he remembers how horrifying it was to learn that one of his campuses — Great Mills High — had been added to the long list of deadly school shooting sites.

“Every single person who went through that incredibly traumatic day has that exact same heightened level of remembrance,” he said.

Using their grim recollections of the day, Smith and other county leaders walked officials from across the state through how they responded to the Great Mills shooting. The presentation was part of Monday’s Maryland Center for School Safety Summer Conference, attended by Gov. Larry Hogan, state Superintendent Karen Salmon, police officers and officials in other local school systems.

“The most important thing we can do is learn from one another,” Smith said after the presentation. “It’s important we learn from tragedy. Hopefully, we can all get to the other side and be safer.”

In a first-floor ballroom at The Westin Annapolis, more than 200 people stared at a black PowerPoint slide with the date “March 20, 2018” written in white lettering.

St. Mary's County Sheriff Tim Cameron walked the group through the details of the day. How the 17-year-old shooter approached 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey at around 7:57 a.m., and shot her once in the head. How the school resource officer confronted the boy in a hallway three minutes later. How the officer and the shooter fired their guns almost simultaneously, with the student ultimately killing himself.

A second student was wounded in the attack when the bullet that hit Willey struck him.

While Cameron rushed to the scene, he thought of what happened in Parkland, Fla. The school resource officer there was criticized for staying outside of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School building, where a gunman killed 17 people in February.

By the time Cameron got to Great Mills, there were numerous police cars in the lot — but he said he didn’t see any officers.

“I knew then that the response was right on point,” he said. “Everybody was inside.”

His officers did extensive training on how to respond to an active shooter in the years and months leading up to March 20. The school already was outfitted with 44 security cameras, a public safety radio and a host of other protective measures.

“Nothing happened that day by accident,” Cameron said.

At the school safety conference, St. Mary’s officials shared knowledge that only those who have experienced a school shooting could know — expertise they hope other jurisdictions will never have to tap into.

After a school in your district is the site of a shooting, St. Mary’s officials told the crowd, prepare to be inundated with vendors trying to sell ballistic-related services and other safety products. Prepare to answer the phone and suddenly be broadcast live on TV or radio without warning.

St. Mary’s officials stressed the importance of planning far in advance for a potential school shooting. And that doesn't just mean police officers performing realistic active shooter drills.

It means teachers should be well-versed in “Run, Hide, Fight” — the three ways officials recommend people respond to an active shooter threat, depending on the situation. It means districts should have a plan for where they will reunite the families of surviving students after a shooting.

The day of a tragedy is not the day to decide where to host a reunification center, which will be swamped with car and foot traffic, they urged.

School systems also must plan for how to foster healing after students’ and teachers’ sense of security has been shattered, the St. Mary’s officials said. They need to figure out how they’ll help kids retrieve their book bags and other belongings in the least traumatizing way. And they’ll also need to manage the outpouring of money and food that will arrive after the incident.

Ed Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety, said there was no county in the state better prepared to deal with what happened. He thanked them for sharing their tragedy with the conference attendees.

Other presentations Monday aimed to get local schools up to speed on school safety measures passed in the last legislative session. Hogan signed a sweeping new law that requires, among other things, that each school system develop an annual drill schedule, file reports on whether they have adequate law enforcement coverage and conduct safety evaluations of every school building in their district.

The state’s 2019 fiscal year budget includes $40.6 million for school safety projects.

State officials reminded people at the conference that the new law requires certain actions by Sept. 1. School systems have to appoint a mental health services coordinator, a school safety coordinator and report how many of their high schools are covered by resource officers.

Hogan said Maryland is ahead of the curve when it comes to school safety laws, “but we must remain ever vigilant when it comes to protecting our kids.”

The state superintendent said districts must be proactive and preventative.

“School safety needs to be our primary focus,” Salmon said, “without any distractions.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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