Washington Co. schools ramp up vigilance against rising violence

March 04, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |

HAGERSTOWN — In the years since 13 people died when two students went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., more than a dozen years ago, school shootings continue to horrify the nation.

“Obviously, it’s every superintendent’s worst kind of nightmare,” Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said Thursday in a phone interview, three days after another shooting rampage in a school.

On Feb. 27, three teenagers were killed and two were seriously wounded in a shooting at Chardon High School in northeastern Ohio. T.J. Lane, 17, a student who published reports say attended an alternative school for students who haven’t done well in traditional schools, was charged in juvenile court with three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and one count of felonious assault, according to The Associated Press.

The Ohio shooting resonated with him, Wilcox said, in part because he knows Jane Hammond, who was superintendent of Jefferson County Schools in Colorado, which include Columbine High School, at the time of the April 20, 1999, shootings.

When he hears about school shootings, Wilcox said he asks himself whether his own school system’s security procedures have been reviewed recently, he said.

He said that after last week’s shooting in Ohio, he was in contact with school system Safety and Security Manager Steve Ganley.

Around 7 a.m. the next day, Ganley sent an email to principals reminding them about security procedures and the need to review their emergency handbooks, Wilcox said. Ganley followed up later that day, calling on principals to review their building security plans, to make sure doors were secure and that none were propped open, Wilcox said.

Asked when was the last time a student brought a real gun to Washington County Public Schools, school system spokesman Richard Wright checked with local law enforcement supervisors and noted in an email to The Herald-Mail that a gun was confiscated on the grounds of Clear Spring High School in 2005.

According to Herald-Mail archives, a loaded Glock 9 mm semiautomatic handgun was found in a 15-year-old Clear Spring High student’s jeans pocket on Oct. 28, 2005, by school administrators after he was restrained from starting a fight after school. The boy also had an additional magazine for the gun. Charges against the boy included carrying a deadly weapon on school property, and he was taken into custody by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Paying attention
There are no metal detectors or detector wands in any of the school system’s schools, but there are seven school resource officers — police officers — based in schools. The school system does take precautions, such as buzzing in visitors to schools after they have been seen on security cameras or seen through a window by a school employee, school system officials said.

But safety measures involve more than securing doors, and Wilcox said paying attention to students is given priority.

For instance, teachers are encouraged to build deeper relationships with students, Wilcox said.

Teachers are in the schools to teach, but also should care about students personally, should want to create a safe place for them to learn and should let students know they can talk to teachers about any concerns they have, he said.

“First and foremost, we’re very vigilant. We’re always looking at kids for signs that they may be disaffected, that somehow they’re not engaged with their classmates, that (they’ve been) pushed off, that they’re alone,” Wilcox told HM Newsmakers last Wednesday for a segment that will air on Antietam Cable’s Channel 30 at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“I think it begins with making sure all kids feel a part of the community, and when kids get pushed out for whatever reason or they just choose to withdraw, we try to monitor that and try to make sure that we’ve reached out and touched them again,” Wilcox said.

The school system recently started an initiative in which pupil personnel workers visit teenagers who have dropped out of high school to encourage them to return to classes, Wilcox said. The return might not be to a traditional school, but to a specialized program like the online classes offered at Antietam Academy, Wilcox said.

School employees might hear about concerns about a particular student from other students, and keep their ears open for rumors.

Although school system officials don’t regularly scan students’ social media pages, they might check social media, such as Facebook, after receiving a tip, Wright said. Social media posts can provide information about a youth’s emotional state or a planned fight, he said.

The school system trains employees for a variety of potential threats, such as someone firing a gun, and provides instruction in instituting lockdowns for safety purposes, officials said.

Twice a year, emergency drills are conducted at each school, Wright said.

During the summer, principals are trained in how to react to different scenarios, such as an “active shooter.” The principals, in turn, are responsible for making sure employees at their schools get training twice a year, Wright said.

Extra time is spent with newly hired school-based employees so they are familiar with emergency procedures, Wright said.

In the schools
Each of the seven resource officers is based at a high school or Antietam Academy, with officers responsible for responding to incidents at several schools in their areas, Wright said. If there’s an emergency, school personnel call 911, he said.

All schools have a scannable ID system for visitors such as parents and volunteers, Wright said.

Parents who go into a school to pick up a child must present a scannable photo ID card that is run through a computer system to verify the person’s identity, and records the child’s name and at what time the child was picked up, Wright said.

The system also prints out an ID for visitors that lists areas in the school where the visitor may go, Wright said.

There are video cameras in schools that can be watched, not only by school office staff, but by those at a command center at the school system’s central office, Wright said.

The school system’s policy calls for all doors to be locked so nonemployees cannot enter from the outside without authorization. Depending on the school, visitors are buzzed in from the office after a staff member sees them on a camera or are buzzed in by a clerical worker stationed by the school’s main entrance, Wright said.

Four schools — North Hagerstown, South Hagerstown and Williamsport high schools, and the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts — have a clerical worker near the front doors because the office is not in the immediate vicinity, he said.

Some schools have vestibules with a double set of doors, Wright said. In those cases, visitors must be buzzed in through one or both sets of doors before they can enter the main part of the school.

“In fact we’ve responded, I think pretty aggressively, to some investigative reporting done by this newspaper,” Wilcox told HM Newsmakers.

The tougher entrance procedures, with locked doors and staffing at front entrances, were enacted after The Herald-Mail conducted a surprise security check of several schools in the Tri-State area in October 2006.

In that check, reporters went to a number of schools. The reporters gained entry to some of the schools and in some cases, walked around inside, often for several minutes, before they were stopped by an employee or went to the school office to make their presence known.

Coming up
Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox talks about local education issues as well as the Feb. 27 school shooting in Ohio during an upcoming HM Newsmakers segment. The segment will air Friday, Saturday and Sunday on Antietam Cable’s channel 30 at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The Herald-Mail Articles