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School safety bills take on more urgency in Maryland General Assembly after shootings

School safety bills take on more urgency in Maryland General Assembly after shootings
Governor Larry Hogan speaks at a press conference about the triple shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County. (Joshua McKerrow, staff / Capital Gazette)

Two days after a triple shooting at a St. Mary’s County high school thrust Maryland into the center of a national reckoning over gun violence, state lawmakers on Thursday displayed bipartisan support for requiring districts to hire security administrators, provide more training for school police officers and devise active shooter plans for all schools.

The House of Delegates took up the school safety measures — including those from Gov. Larry Hogan, who has said the legislature needs to act faster — as students from across the state and nation were preparing for a march against gun violence in Washington Saturday.

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The measures were introduced in the wake of the massacre last month at a high school in Parkland, Fla., but the need for them was stressed again when a student at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County brought his father’s handgun to school and wounded two classmates Tuesday, officials said. The shooter was killed.

“We must do more,” state schools Superintendent Karen Salmon told a House of Delegates committee Thursday. “We must respond with concrete actions and solutions.”

The legislature is considering a host of proposals from Hogan and coordinated by Sen. Stephen Waugh, a Southern Maryland Republican whose district includes Great Mills. The measures would require school districts to more closely examine how prepared they are for a shooting or other emergency, including how secure their buildings and classrooms are and how their teachers and resource officers are trained to respond.

Hogan on Thursday said a supplemental state budget he submitted to the legislature included $10 million for a grant program to fund his proposals. If approved, that would add to the nearly $30 million for school safety investments already in the budget bill that has been approved by both chambers of the General Assembly.

Waugh said he began developing his proposals after watching the father of one of the Parkland shooting victims on TV pleading with President Donald Trump to do something to prevent future school shootings.

“I felt that guy poking me in the chest for a week,” Waugh said.

After a discussion with Senate colleagues, he resolved to design a set of four bills that have bipartisan support, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The Great Mills shooting in his home county only bolstered Waugh’s resolve. Three bills are scheduled for a hearing today in a Senate committee.

“I ain’t gonna fail for lack of taking a swing,” Waugh said.

Much of the nationwide discussion after the Parkland shooting has focused on school resource officers — one stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took shelter in the parking lot while 17 students were killed.

In Maryland, officials praised Great Mills resource officer Blaine Gaskill, a St. Mary’s sheriff’s deputy, for responding quickly and potentially stopping the shooter after firing on him.

Hogan’s proposal does not mandate that police departments place more officers in schools, but Clarke said it “creates the opportunity” for more to be hired, if that is deemed important in a school’s emergency planning process.

The governor’s proposals lean heavily on the Maryland Center for School Safety, a state agency created in 2013 that coordinates with districts across the state to protect students. The center would add staff and write training curriculum for teachers and school-based police officers.

“Not all of our teachers are equally as prepared to respond to emergencies,” Edward Clarke, the center’s executive director said. Noting that they are the true “first responders,” he said school districts need to “empower teachers to make critical decisions based on their training.”

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The legislation also requires school systems to establish teams that include counselors, teachers and law enforcement to be on guard for “threatening or aberrant” behavior that could precede a shooting. And it requires schools to hold active threat drills every year.

Delegates of both parties were receptive.

“I really appreciate the bill; I think it’s significant,” said Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. “I want to thank you actually for not including any measure that would add any more weapons to our buildings.”

In the Senate, Waugh and Sen. Kathleen Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, made the case for a bill that would specifically require secure, lockable classroom doors, an area in each classroom where students could be shielded from gunfire, and cameras or other security technology so police could have more information in the event of an active shooter.

“This bill is a step in the right direction to counter that threat,” Klausmeier said. “If you’re a Republican or you’re a Democrat, you want safety for your children.”

Representatives for schools were also supportive. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education stressed the importance of funding, particularly for potentially expensive capital projects in Waugh’s proposal.

Sean Johnson, assistant executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, stressed that the focus should be on “what we do to prevent these incidents of violence from even coming into our schools — not what we do once a gun or violence appears.”

“Part of that really rests with needing to improve our ratios of counselors and school psychologists,” Johnson said.

Discussions in both chambers Thursday took a mostly bipartisan tone. But some delegates had stern words for Hogan deputies after the governor, speaking in St. Mary’s County on Tuesday, called it “outrageous” that the legislature had not yet acted on his school safety proposal.

Del. Anne Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat, noted that Hogan’s bill was filed with one month remaining in the General Assembly’s annual 90-day session. It did not reach the Ways and Means Committee, which she chairs, until March 12.

“It’s pretty fast tracked,” Kaiser said.

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