School safety by smartphone

This week, Baltimore County school officials started distributing hand-held metal detectors to school resource officers to help in the effort to keep weapons off campus. At the same time, Anne Arundel County made an app for students to submit tips about possible threats available on iTunes and Google Play. Parents who are worried about the rash of weapons incidents in area schools this year may be inclined to think Baltimore County is taking the more significant step, but research and recent experience suggest otherwise.

Both counties had new cases of students bringing weapons to campus this week, and in both instances school officials acted on tips to resolve the situations without anyone getting hurt. The "see something, say something" message officials delivered after the shooting at Perry Hall High School in August seems to be paying off.


On Tuesday, students at Owings Mills High School in Baltimore County spotted a classmate removing what appeared to be a gun from his waistband on a street near the school. They reported what they saw to school staff, who summoned police and put the building on lockdown. A suspect was soon identified from school surveillance camera footage and arrested by police, who recovered a BB gun in his possession. The weapon had not been fired.

On the same day, at Southern High School in Anne Arundel County, a school resource officer was tipped off that a student there was carrying a weapon he had shown to another student. The officer confronted the suspect in the school cafeteria and confiscated a carbon-dioxide-powered pellet gun and a knife; that gun had not been fired either, and the boy was arrested. In both incidents, the students were charged as juveniles with possession of a dangerous weapon on school property; police have withheld their names because they are minors.


What's most notable about these episodes is that authorities were able to intervene to prevent what could have been a tragedy only because other students at the school were willing to step forward and warn of the danger. Without their cooperation, either situation could easily have escalated into violence.

Research about past school shootings, much of it conducted by a team of Johns Hopkins researchers led by Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Dean Katherine S. Newman, shows that the students involved in such crimes are typically troubled, socially isolated youngsters who rarely act out on their violent impulses spontaneously. Instead, they often plan their attacks for weeks or months in advance, and during that time they give off plenty of warning signs of their intentions. They desperately want the acceptance and respect of others, and the more attention they get by telegraphing their frustrations, the more attention they crave.

That's why the first people likely to notice what they are up to are the kids around them who see them every day. More than parents or teachers, it is kids who are alert to what's going on within their peer group, and as this week's incidents suggest, they can serve as a first line of defense against classmates who pose a threat. School authorities need to encourage them to speak up when they notice something amiss.

For that to happen, however, students must feel certain that authorities will take them seriously if they come forward and that their confidences will remain private. Nobody wants to get a reputation for being a snitch. Among adolescents, in particular, loyalty to the peer group is often stronger than to the adult world, and many kids would rather cover up for a peer than betray him even it means tolerating a potential threat in their midst. School authorities also need to impress on the young people in their charge that they won't be punished for false alarms and that their efforts to protect themselves and their classmates are appreciated.

The hand-held metal detectors in Baltimore County will allow school resource officers to conduct less-intrusive searches of students who may be carrying a weapon, but they still need a reason to suspect a student in the first place. Baltimore County officials have recognized the need to improve communications, and they might want to take a look at what Anne Arundel is doing. The app provides an easy mechanism for students to tip off school resource officers to a concern while doing something that their peers will never suspect as unusual — pecking away at their smartphones. It won't solve the problem by itself, but it meets students on their terms, and that is a positive step.