As Harford County Public Schools students prepare to head back to school Sept. 4, safety and security are the minds of everyone — students, parents, staff, police and school administrators.
There have been a number of school shootings in recent years and local officials have acknowledged that it’s not if, but rather when an incident might happen in one of Harford’s public and private schools. Some students are afraid to go to school, they’ve admitted in public forums and school board meetings where school safety has been discussed.
In response, the Harford County Government, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office and the school system are working on ways to ensure students, faculty and staff are kept safe while at one of the schools, including assigning a police officer daily to all nine county public middle schools.
That plan, however, won’t be in effect at all those schools when students report for the first day of classes in less than two weeks, but it’s coming, school and police officials say. Regardless, students and parents should feel more secure about their safety at school, according to the public school system’s top security person.
Prepare and respond
“Right now, when it comes to your student walking through the doors of Harford County public schools, you can know that we do take our security protocol seriously,” Donoven Brooks, chief of safety and security for Harford County Public Schools, said.
“Are there any absolutes? I tell people there are no absolutes,” he continued. “So what we do is prepare the best we can so when a situation does happen, we can respond and react to it so we can keep our kids, your kids, everyone’s kids and our staff as safe as possible.”
Students returning to Bel Air Middle School will see a new, full-time school resource officer in their building. Officer First Class Nicholas Rhodes has been assigned to the school as part of a countywide expansion of the SRO program.
In the spring, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman announced additional funding in this year’s budget to expand the Harford County Sheriff’s Office school resource officer program to put an SRO in every middle school.
The county had already funded police officers in Edgewood and Magnolia Middle Schools, and the cities of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace fund officers in their middle schools.
Of the remaining middle schools — Fallston, North Harford, Patterson Mill and Southampton — two will receive school resource officers shortly after the beginning of the school year, Kyle Andersen, public information specialist for the Sheriff’s Office, said.
Which schools they are has not been determined, he said.
“We will work closely with our partners in Harford County Public Schools to identify which middle schools have the greatest immediate need for an SRO,” Andersen said.
Three Sheriff’s Office deputies have been identified to transfer into the SRO program. In addition to the two who will be assigned to middle schools, the third is assigned full-time to the alternative education program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen, Andersen said.
The remaining schools without SROs should have them by January, when the Sheriff’s Office should have sufficient staffing to allow additional deputies to be transferred into the school policing unit, Andersen said.
Should it be possible before that, if staffing allows, deputies will be transferred into the unit as they’re available.
School resource officers are not the only way the Sheriff’s Office protects students and staff in the schools.
“The Sheriff’s Office uses a ringed approach to safety in our schools,” Andersen said. “Patrol deputies form the outer and at times inner rings as they are primarily responsible for the elementary schools and all school-related incidents occurring after hours and on weekends.”
While police officers will be in the middle and high schools, the patrol deputies will serve as secondary responders to schools with officers and serve as “force multipliers” in an effort to avert dangerous incidents.
“As such, patrol deputies are the backbone of our safety efforts and staffing a security posture for our schools begins there,” Andersen said.
Elementary school police
While the Sheriff’s Office and school system implement officers into the middle schools, leaders both also will be looking at potentially placing school resource officers in the county’s 34 public elementary schools, though they say it’s not a priority, and may not be appropriate, at least in the eyes of some people.
“I’ve had parents who have expressed that they would have concerns about it,” Brooks said. “Elementary school is a very delicate place and time period in a young student’s life. There have been mixed review on having uniformed school police at that level.”
It might be more appropriate to have retired police officers who aren’t in uniform, Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the Glassman’s administration and the county executive’s liaison to the school system, said.
She also pointed out that many of the county’s elementary schools are near the middle and high schools, so were an emergency to arise, those school resource officers would be nearby to respond.
Instead of police officers at the elementary level, Brooks said, patrol and community policing deputies may stop into a school from time to time.
And the school system will use its standard security protocols to keep students safe.
“We have stepped up in terms of vetting visitors right at the door,” he said. “We ensure we get information on those who are coming in and out of a building.”
Schools across the county, not just at the elementary level, use a visitor management system and layers of security to identify the people who are coming into a building.
“We also ensure we maintain vigilance, even when it’s not about someone coming through the door. If staff sees someone in the school they don’t recognize, they ask if they can help them, ask if they’re looking for someone in a specific office,” Brooks said. “We challenge them with courtesy, but it’s of the utmost importance when you’re talking about safety and security.”
Active assailant training
Shortly after Brooks began working for Harford County Public Schools Jan. 2, he created the Safety and Security Active Assailant Task Force, comprised of all facets of the school community — secretaries, custodians, mental health providers, teachers, parents — to focus on what needs to be done to make schools as safe as possible and bring together other perspectives, he said.
“I need everybody, and most importantly the students, to be safety and security minded,” Brooks said.
The task force is working to identify what type of active assailant training would be most effective and appropriate for Harford County Public Schools, he said. Whatever program it is, it’s about having options.
“We want to present and provide our students, staff, administrators with options if something should occur in our building. There isn’t just one thing to do,” Brooks said. “When you have options, you have the opportunity to make decisions you feel are life-saving, if and when we have the unfortunate situation where we have to go into action and really utilize our options.”
Mental health aspect
Brooks’ safety and security staff is not equipped, nor does it have the training, to handle mental health related aspects of safety in schools, but his office is working closely with mental health partners for guidance.
“We know there’s a nexus between folks who can help you stay safe from a physical standpoint and folks who can help you stay safe from a mental health standpoint,” Brooks said. “And I’m happy those entities, at least in Harford County, are having a very robust conversation.”
Harford County government is joining that conversation and will host a series of free classes on mental health and safety this fall to raise awareness and empower citizens as young as 12 to peacefully resolve conflict and help others in crisis, Mumby said.
Topics in the series, which starts Sept. 12, include conflict resolution, suicide prevention, mental health awareness and mental health services in Harford County Public Schools.
The mental health angle isn’t necessarily about a threat, he said, it’s about safety and understanding, “because it really helps us understand from the perspective of people who may be dealing with these things.”
“It’s not for us to diagnose, but for us to show up and try and assess the situation until more capable people arrive or until we can get the person what they need,” Brooks said.
Overall, Brooks said, he’s ready for the year to start.
“I’m looking forward to opening our doors to students Sept. 4 and having them come into a safe learning environment so they can learn, enjoy their academic year and also continue to develop and work on our safety and security protocols,” Brooks said. “We will continue to improve on what we’ve already been doing. We have a track record of doing things well and we want to continue to improve on that.”