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Staying vigilant in an effort to keep Washington County schools safe

December 22, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Washington Co. Sheriff Doug Mullendore take a virtual tour of the inside of a county school from the inside of his vehicle.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Ensuring exterior school doors are kept closed and locked.

Monitoring school visitors.

Talking about metal detectors.

Engaging in a national gun-control debate.

These are some of the issues that routinely arise after a school shooting makes national headlines, and people, from parents to educators to political pundits, talk about what can be done to make schools safer.

The national discussion, perhaps not for the first time, has included arming school principals following the Dec. 14 school shootings at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 20 children and six adults dead, as well as the shooter.

Locally, Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox took the issue beyond simply ensuring physical school security — making sure exterior doors are locked and reminding principals to be careful in monitoring visitors’ comings and goings — to asking school administrators to check with employees about issues in their lives that could “escalate” and “spill out onto campus.”

In an email Wilcox sent to school principals and assistant principals on Dec. 16, two days after the Connecticut shootings, he asked them to “thoughtfully, tactfully and delicately ask your faculty and staff if there is anything going on in their life — which could — escalate into an incident which might spill out onto campus.”

Wilcox asked that they do so privately, so as not to embarrass anyone.

“If your conversation gives us some insight into either providing help to the person in need or averts a crisis — slight offense taken is something we can take,” Wilcox wrote.

Wilcox said Wednesday he told principals, “We have a responsibility to be aware of our environment.”

“We’re an intensely human organization in the sense that ... parents come in and sometimes, they don’t get the best of news from us,” Wilcox said. “Sometimes, our employees have spouses who are struggling because it’s a rough economy. We just want to be aware of those things.

“We want people to have open lines of communications so that we can anticipate that there may be a problem on the horizon.”

Denise Fry, president of the Washington County Teachers Association, said Wilcox is “asking the tough questions that need to be asked.”

“He’s saying we need to make sure that everyone’s OK,” Fry said. “If that’s asking a tough question here or there, that needs to be done occasionally.”

“I think it’s being proactive,” Board of Education President Justin Hartings said. “I think, again, we don’t know all the details of what led this disturbed man in Connecticut to do what he did. But ... if there are signs in the community that we can see in people who ... are struggling or are unhappy, that we can use to try to help protect all of us, then I think ... that’s a great proactive step.”  

 
Stepping up security

On Dec. 16, two days after the shootings in Connecticut, school system senior staff met to draft a letter to principals and Wilcox issued an audio message to parents to let them know principals would review security procedures.

The Hagerstown Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office sent extra officers to schools last week to reassure school communities.

The school system has seven school resource officers who are sworn police officers and carry a firearm.

According to Hagerstown Police Capt. Mark Holtzman, the acting police chief, and Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore, there is a resource officer assigned to North Hagerstown High, Northern Middle and Fountaindale Elementary schools; South Hagerstown High, E. Russell Hicks Middle and Emma K. Doub Elementary schools; Antietam Academy and Washington County Technical High School; Western Heights Middle, Salem Avenue Elementary and Winter Street Elementary schools; the Williamsport school complex and its feeder schools; the Boonsboro school complex and its feeder schools; and the Smithsburg school complex and its feeder schools.

School system officials have talked to school security staff about how schools should be policed, including the frequency and general routines needed, Wilcox said.

Wilcox said he will meet with Hagerstown Police Department and sheriff’s office officials after the winter break (school resumes Jan. 2). In addition to thanking them for their service, Wilcox said he wants to talk about “our needs” and “proximity to schools given an emergency call, what are response times?” and to reconfirm commitments made in the past that have served the school system well.

Among the safety procedures school system officials reviewed in the past week include identifying who has access to school facilities through the badges that allow people to get into school system buildings, Wilcox said.

“As most people know, you can’t just walk into a school today. You’ve got to come up, you’ve got to be buzzed into the building, because we have electronic locks on all of our outside doors,” Wilcox said.

“We’ve also reminded people about good lock security, making sure that our classrooms can be secured, we’ve talked about keeping doors that are unkeyed propped open. We’ve eliminated that, to the best of my knowledge today,” Wilcox said Wednesday.

While schools have varying, but similar procedures, visitors who are not recognized by school office staff are to be asked who they are and why they are at the school before being buzzed in, school system spokesman Richard Wright said.

If school officials expect a particular parent they know well to pick up their child for an eye doctor’s appointment, the parents might not face questions when they arrive at the front door, but might be buzzed in after being seen on the security camera, Wright said.


Arming principals?

Wilcox said he would not support principals carrying or having access to guns in schools.

“I just don’t think our principals have the training or expertise to do that,” Wilcox said.

“I can’t imagine, given the other challenges of their day, that to place that responsibility on any one of our principals would be something that our policymakers, our board, would want us to do, or the individual principals themselves (would want),” he said.

“I’m not there right now,” Hartings said about having principals carry or have access to firearms in the schools.

“Principals are trained as educators first and ... as the leader of their building, they’re responsible for security in their school,” but they’re not trained as law enforcement officials “and I’m not comfortable, at this point, with essentially making them a law enforcement official,” Hartings said.

Mullendore said a Maryland state law, aligned with a federal act, prohibits firearms in schools except those carried by police, such as school resource officers. The legislation would have to be changed for a school administrator to have a gun in school, he said.

Personally, Mullendore said, he doesn’t want to see principals with firearms in school.

If someone is being forced to carry a firearm just because of the position they hold, that person might not be comfortable doing that, he said.

And, Mullendore said, there’s too much opportunity for an innocent bystander to get shot.

“Part of it is looking at what type of climate you want to create,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center near Los Angeles.

“You want the schools to look like the Old West with the principal carrying a sidearm gun slinged around their hip?” he asked.

Arming principals “is very likely a problematic situation,” Stephens said. Before that happens, Stephens said, he’d rather see the “appropriate academy-trained individuals” available in schools.

On Friday, the National Rifle Association called for armed security at all American schools.

Wilcox was not available Friday, but Wright said there are no plans to add armed security at local schools.

Mullendore said Friday the idea of armed security at schools would not work for various reasons.


Training

Teachers, principals and local police receive training for emergency scenarios, including one tackling the premise of an active shooter, although the depth of that training varies.

“We have a number of monthly drills within the school system,” Wilcox said.

Fire drills are held monthly so students know how to respond, he said.

Educators also talk about what would happen should there be an armed intruder on campus, about lockdown procedures if an armed person who robbed a bank is loose in the neighborhood, and other emergency scenarios such as natural disasters, Wilcox said.

“And we drill on those things. Maybe not with the frequency that we ought to, but we are there on at least an annual basis reviewing those processes,” Wilcox said.

The school system uses a train-the-trainer model, Wilcox said.

School administrators receive training from the school system’s safety and security manager, Steve Ganley, and school resource officers, Ganley said. The training includes information from an online FEMA course, he said.

Principals are responsible for training teachers, Wilcox said.

Stephens said he believes it’s important for teachers to have the opportunity to get insight from local police on how to respond to potential situations, such as a shooter.

“If I was a teacher, I would want to have some direct training and involvement” with police, Stephens said.

With a large, complicated organization such as a school system, Wilcox said, the school system “can’t get that kind of personalized training to individuals, so (we) rely on the train-the-trainer model,” Wilcox said.

Included in Wilcox’s letter to principals Dec. 16 were reminders from Ganley.


Fright, flight or fight

Among those reminders: “Remember your training — Fright, Flight or Fight. You have choices. Should you hide or run. If you can do neither, it is time to fight.”

If a teacher hears shots come from the other side of the school, and knows the shooter is some distance away, it might be best to evacuate the class at that point, Mullendore said.

If the shooter is closer, lock down the class, Mullendore said.

If the shooter enters the classroom, “the best option is to try to attack them and survive it,” Mullendore said.

A few years ago, Hancock Police Chief T.J. Buskirk organized a training exercise at Hancock Middle-Senior High School that was recorded as a training video used by educators, Mullendore said.

The video shows how police respond to specific situations and what teachers should do if they hear shots fired in a school, Mullendore said.

Police agencies also train for active shooter scenarios, and other emergency situations, at schools as well as at other sites, local law enforcement officials said.

Mullendore said his officers go through training on almost an annual basis for the active shooter scenario, working with other police departments, including Hagerstown’s and police in the smaller towns.

They probably train in a school setting every three years, at a time when students are not present, Mullendore said. A couple of teachers might be there, but mostly school personnel present would be school administrators such as the principal, he said.

Holtzman said Hagerstown Police do active shooter scenario training every year, although not necessarily in a school setting every year.

In 2013, the Hagerstown Police Department will have a joint active shooter scenario training with the sheriff’s department, he said.

Holtzman and Mullendore said police, including the special response team, walk through new schools to learn their layouts as well as walk through older schools periodically to see the layout.

The nice thing about having a county school system is there are consistent security policies such as lockdowns, Holtzman said.

A school on modified lockdown keeps students inside the building, while a school on full lockdown keeps students in their classrooms, Wright said.

Mullendore said his deputies and incident commanders have access, through laptops in their vehicles, to virtual tours of every school in the county as well as to other large buildings such as the hospital and colleges.

The virtual tours show officers at the scene of an emergency what the building’s layout is so they know what’s around a corner or through a door, but it is not live coverage, so it would not show people moving in the building, he said.

Police can get access to live security camera footage when available, Mullendore said.


Having plans in place

Stephens, the National School Safety Center’s executive director, said the community cannot expect schools to be perfect, but it can expect the school system to have good, safe school plans in place.

“To expect a school to never allow a shooting like this to occur, I don’t know any school district in America that is prepared to stop the kind of violence where the shooter has semiautomatic weapons that clearly overpower not just school officials, but in many cases, police departments in these jurisdictions,” Stephens said.

“I’m not naive. I don’t think any of us are,” Wilcox said.

“We know that sometimes people don’t exercise the best judgment,” Wilcox said Monday. The horrific events in Connecticut provide an opportunity to review processes and procedures, he said.

“One of the things people like about this community is we’re friendly and trusting. This incident erodes that a bit,” Wilcox said.

“We won’t be as friendly a place. For me, that’s a little bit sad,” Wilcox said.

Security efforts also are being tightened at the administrative offices off Commonwealth Avenue, Wilcox said.

Asked about the possibility of adding metal detectors to schools, Wilcox said he didn’t think there was a need for “airport-style security in our public schools.”

“I think we have to find a balance where we’re safe and secure, but we’re not necessarily penitentiary-like or airport-like in our approach,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox said he thought the school system’s security measures were “pretty good. I think we can be better.”

“One of the things I talk about is having a place that kids run into and out of with excitement,” he said. “I want to keep that.”

First, he wants to know they are safe and secure, but he also wants students to be excited to be in school, he said.

Wilcox said he didn’t know how excited students would be if parents are swept by a wand to detect metal objects and students weren’t allowed to go outside for fear they’d be abducted from the playground, or if there were wired fences around schools.

“I don’t think the community wants that, but (I) do want to be vigilant,” Wilcox said.

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