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What Maryland schools are doing to keep students safe

Students in school hallwayThe world today, including the world of schools, is certainly different than it was 20, 10 or even five years ago.

In Maryland, schools now have regular lockouts, lockdowns and modified lockdowns, both real and for training purposes. They have often-uniformed security officers and dozens of security cameras.

Doors are locked during the school day, and open classrooms have nearly disappeared since they offer no protection in an emergency situation.

Twice in the past two years, mom Vivian Stefany has been at South River High School when the Edgewater school had to deal with a security emergency.

In the spring of 2016, the Davidsonville resident and mother of a current senior was in the school when a troubled teen went missing nearby and administrators locked the school down as a precaution.

Last school year, she was picking up her son after school when administrators ordered a lockout — meaning the students were locked in the school while she was locked out — because a suspicious person had been spotted in a nearby woods.

But the events did not alarm or even surprise Stefany, who has had two other children graduate from South River.

“It’s the world today, right?” she says. “It’s the way things are.”

Security measures pervade almost all aspects of school operations.

Edward “Chip” Snyder, athletic director at Anne Arundel County’s Chesapeake High School, says that he routinely meets with his counterparts from other schools to discuss security before big games, along with the school administrators and security personnel. Several years ago, he and his counterpart at Northeast High School, Chesapeake’s big rival, took the extraordinary step of moving their match from the last game of the season to one of the first. The reason? If violence erupted and players had to be suspended, the suspension would have a bigger impact on the team early in the season.

“Twenty or 25 years ago, all you had to worry about was a fight, and it would be over and done quickly,” Snyder says. Today fights last longer and can lead to more serious violence — “the bad things we try to prevent,” he says.

Cause of concern

The new world was ushered in most obviously by a few well-publicized incidents of horrific school violence over the past couple of decades — Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012 chief among them.

In the wake of those shootings, school systems throughout the country moved to better protect students and staff from violence.

Maryland was no exception. Four years ago, worried state lawmakers created the Maryland Center for School Safety to help tighten school security.

The center works with the state’s 24 school districts to “provide a comprehensive, coordinated approach to school safety in Maryland,” says Executive Director Ed Clarke, a retired Montgomery County Police captain.

To that end, he says, the center hosts weekly conference calls during the school year with school administrators and law enforcement officials to discuss any concerns or new developments.

It also provides training and technical assistance to the schools. In August, the center hosted a two-day summer safety conference in Annapolis featuring the principal of Columbine High School at the time of the shootings there.

The center also requires all schools to hold a set of six emergency preparedness drills every year, ranging from lockdowns to evacuations, and to update emergency management plans for dealing with incidents annually.

“I think we’ve made great strides,” Clarke says. “We’ve developed much better strategies of how to respond to incidents.”

Added measures

Beyond what the state requires, which includes the six annual drills in every school, school systems are free to institute additional security measures, and almost all do.

Buzzer systems, in which schools lock their doors during the day and require visitors to be buzzed in, are not required but are now common.

The same is true of security cameras, which are proliferating, especially in high schools. Howard County, for example, had two or three security cameras in each school 15 years ago, according to Frank Eastham, executive director of School Improvement and Administration. Today, many high schools have 50 or 60, and more are added every year.

In addition, Eastman says, the county now has a security assistant and a school resource officer (a trained law enforcement officer) in every high school, and has spent millions of dollars on renovations so all elementary school entrances now funnel visitors into the front office.

Prince George’s County school system has closed most of its open classrooms, boosted cooperation between school administrators and the police, and dramatically improved its lockdown process with frequent practice, according to Cesar Pacheco, the system’s director of security services.

The system also has added better, high-tech devices, such as cable cameras, as well as a system where visitors’ driver’s licenses are scanned to identify potentially dangerous guests — sex offenders, for example.

“The technology has gotten a lot better and it’s gotten cheaper,” Pacheco says.

Anne Arundel County has added a host of security innovations over the past several years: more and better security cameras (a total of about 8,000 now); the visitor tracking software Prince George’s uses; and ever-evolving, innovative training for school staff, especially front-office workers.

“We put people in real-life situations — custodians, secretaries, front-line teachers,” says Doyle Batten, a retired county police officer who is supervisor of school security in the county. “Last year, we did live situational training with every teacher at Chesapeake High School.”

In one exercise, for example, an armed county police officer was sent into a school posing as a regular visitor to see how the front-office staff would react. The exercise revealed a “training gap” that has since been addressed, Batten says.

“For a system of our size, we have a very robust training program,” Batten adds.

Security in private schools

Private schools in Maryland, meanwhile, are not required to comply with all state regulations on security. But the largest and best known are members of the Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools, and AIMS requires compliance with those regulations, according to Executive Director Peter Baily.

“Our accreditation process is extensive and rigorous, and an important piece of it is safety and security,” Baily says.

And like the public schools, he says, most private schools go beyond the basic state requirements.

“One of the things independent schools try to do is insure families and students have a feeling of safety and security,” Baily says. “If they didn’t have that feeling, they would go elsewhere.”

Alarming but rare

Anne Arundel County’s Batten is eager to point out that schools remain relatively safe compared to just about anywhere else young people congregate.

“School violence is alarming, but extraordinarily rare,” he says, noting the high level of adult supervision in schools. “Schools are infinitely more safe than the average environment.”

“Our schools are not immune from any incident,” agrees Howard County’s Eastham, “but I think they are certainly safe.”

But that doesn’t mean incidents don’t happen. The state has been free of sensational violence, but incidents serious enough to prompt lockdowns have become more and more common.

In Prince George’s County, the number of lockdowns hit double digits last year for the first time, security chief Pacheco says.

Howard County has about a dozen lockdowns each year now, officials say. Last spring alone, schools in Jessup had to be locked down twice after two separate inmate-escape incidents from the nearby Jessup Correctional Institution.

Relative calm

The lockdowns, officials say, are now widely accepted.

“Ten years ago, it would create a panic when we did a lockdown,” says Terry Street, manager for safety, environment and risk management with the Howard County School System. “Parents would come to school and want their kids released immediately. Now they know to stay away.”

In fact, just about everyone involved appears to have grown accustomed to the new world of heightened school security, of lockdowns and uniformed officers, security cameras and locked school doors. Accustomed and, in many cases, appreciative.

“As a parent, it’s concerning to me seeing what happened at other schools,” says Michelle Phibbons, whose daughter graduated last year from South River High School and who was president of the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization during the much-publicized April 2016 lockdown at the school. “It’s concerning to every parent. There’s noway to call where some crazy person is going to come in to a school.”

But Phibbons takes comfort in the boosted security and better training of school personnel that now is a part of South River — and just about every school in the area. “It’s all totally fine by me,” she say. “I think it’s a fantastic idea.”

By Pete Pichaske

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