Washington County school security: What's been done, what we must do what's left to do

October 08, 2006|by Elizabeth M. Morgan

An open letter to parents, guardians, staff and community members:

I am very saddened and troubled by the recent, terrible events that have taken place in schools across the nation. In my 35-year career in public education, I cannot remember a time of such tragedy affecting schools. We have lived through the events of Sept. 11, 2001, with a very real threat to schools in our area from terrorists, and the sniper incidents of 2002, when we moved to lockdown for numerous days because these incidents were so close to home. I find these school shootings especially troubling. They are troubling because they are very unpredictable and random acts of violence aimed specifically at schools.

Schools are public institutions serving the community and are in the unique position of being a community resource and places where people of all ages gather for many events. Like libraries, community pools or other designated, governmental property, they belong to the taxpayers and, ideally, should be open to all who want to enter.


In neighborhoods throughout Washington County, the schools are the center or the "heart" of the community and, I believe, that is the way it should be. However, by the same token, we cannot open schools to everyone, anytime, everywhere. To do that would be foolish and nave on our parts.

And there's the dilemma - how to strike the balance between welcoming parents and the community into the schools, yet preserving the safety and security of our students and staff members. Our challenge, therefore, is to provide security measures, while at the same time, to create a welcoming atmosphere and access to the public.

Schools cannot have uncontrolled access, yet, on the other hand, we do not want them to feel like prisons with multiple security checkpoints for entry. I believe this would be the wrong message, not only to the public, but mostly to our students who should not dwell in environments where no one is trusted and everyone is suspected of doing harm.

That said, let me reassure parents, guardians and members of the community that the school system has already taken and will continue to implement measures regarding safety and security. Over the last several years, the system has created a position of safety and security manager, expanded partnerships with safety, security and law enforcement agencies, put in place emergency response teams, trained all administrative personnel in emergency management systems and spent in excess of $500,000 in taxpayer dollars for this purpose in the last two budget years alone.

We have installed security cameras at 16 schools, implemented key card entry systems related to portables at 20 schools and devised emergency and security plans unique to each school building.

In addition, effective immediately, we will be expending emergency facilities funds to begin to implement additional key card entry/camera systems at the front doors of all schools.

While the system is concerned about outsiders entering our buildings with the intent to do harm, we must remind ourselves that random acts of violence perpetrated by strangers to the community are extremely rare, but when sensationalized by the media may seem more common.

Day-to-day internal safety is most important. The system has focused on controlling the number of internal incidents that, statistically, can pose more of a threat to students and staff than from outsiders. Creating an atmosphere in which students feel respected and protected, as well as encouraging students to talk to an adult when they are troubled or witness troubling incidents, has helped to cut down on potential, internal harm.

Our schools are considered "safe," according to state and federal measurements taken yearly of all schools in Maryland, and we have witnessed a documented 50 percent decrease in serious incidents in the schools in the last four years.

Prevention is the best antidote to potential school violence. We will continue to implement both human and material measures for safety.

Awareness on the part of students, staff, parents and persons in a school neighborhood is the No. 1 deterrent, and security is the job of everyone in the school community. I am issuing an awareness bulletin to all schools to remind individuals that all persons not wearing identification or who are unrecognized by school personnel should be confronted immediately by any adult in the building.

Secondly, multiple measures of safety, not just one approach, will continue to be implemented. While we have had plans to phase in security equipment by 2008, in light of recent incidents, we will take immediate steps to increase the limiting of access to all schools in Washington County.

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