Safety Check

Safety Check

Nobody wants to see a Columbine or a Sandy Hook happen in our schools. But how do you prevent it when school resource officers are already spread so thin?

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The hallways at Richard Montgomery High School should have been empty that Thursday afternoon in late October. But as security guards monitored the Rockville school’s cameras, they spotted two teenage boys outside of class.

The guards recognized one as a recent transfer student, but nobody knew the other. When the guards went to intercept them, the boys ran from the building.

Back in the office, the security chief reviewed camera footage to see what the teens had been up to. He saw the boys approach a vacant locker and put something inside, so he dispatched guards to check it out. 

Inside the locker, they found a bag. Inside the bag was a handgun. 

That incident last fall ended peacefully. A Rockville police officer who was summoned to the school determined that the gun didn’t work, county police say, and one of the teens was soon arrested.  

But as events around the country have shown, things could have gone much differently. 

Educators and parents in Montgomery County and elsewhere have been on alert ever since two teenagers attacked Columbine High School near Denver in 1999, killing 13 along with themselves. Fears of similar incidents were reawakened last December after a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Perhaps it was the shock of seeing 6- and 7-year-old victims or the seemingly random nature of the attack, but the shootings at Sandy Hook have reverberated through the nation like no other.

After the Connecticut massacre, local Listservs buzzed about the adequacy of security in Montgomery County Public Schools. Frightened parents asked whether MCPS should consider putting security guards in elementary schools, as it does at middle schools and high schools. In January, more than 200 people attended a forum on school safety. 

And at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, most students responding to a survey shortly after the shootings said they were worried about being safe at school. That response, Principal Alan Goodwin says, “just speaks to the general unease that students feel. Safety is on a lot of kids’ minds.”

It’s not just students and parents who are worried.

“After the Sandy Hook shootings,” says Principal Renay Johnson of Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School, “all of the principals started asking ourselves: Are we safe enough?” 

That depends on how you define “safe enough.”

During the 2011-12 school year, police officers were summoned 1,282 times to Montgomery County public schools. In a seven-month period that year, they made 198 arrests—nearly half of them for controlled substances; 35 for weapons; and the rest for robbery, assaults, alcohol violations and disorderly conduct, according to the county.

The day of the gun incident at Richard Montgomery, students were dismissed on time, unaware that anything had happened until the principal emailed them later that day. But in a matter of months, another gun incident occurred. 

On Dec. 6—just eight days before 20-year-old Adam Lanza’s attack thrust Newtown into the national spotlight—a school resource officer approached a 17-year-old who had been suspended from Rockville’s Magruder High School and wasn’t supposed to be on school grounds. The officer found a .22-caliber handgun in the teen’s backpack, but no ammunition, county police say.

Many say incidents like these argue for more armed police officers, known as school resource officers (SROs), in county public schools. Not only do SROs act as deterrents, proponents say, but they’re armed to deal with anyone brandishing a weapon, unlike school security guards and other staffers. Maryland lawmakers, however, decided against pursuing legislation this spring that would place a school resource officer in every public school in the state.

From 2003 to 2010, the county police department assigned an SRO to each of MCPS’s 25 public high schools and two of its middle schools. (SROs were not assigned to the elementary schools, but there was an understanding that they might be summoned in the event of a serious issue.) The officers considered their assigned schools to be their beat and spent their shifts there. But budget cuts in recent years have decimated the 10-year-old program. 

Today, just six SROs cover all of the high schools (none is assigned to middle schools), making their response time dependent on where they happen to be when called. 

That weighs heavily on school resource officer Maureen Connelly, a nine-year veteran whose beat includes Rockville, Thomas S. Wootton and Richard Montgomery high schools in Rockville, Winston Churchill in Potomac, Poolesville High School and Quince Orchard in Gaithersburg.  

“What if I’m sitting at Churchill and something goes off at Wootton? It’s going to take me at least five minutes to get there, lights and sirens, and who knows how far my backup is,” says Connelly, who’d like to see an armed officer at each school again. 

School resource officer Arnold Aubrey. Photo by Michael VenturaGoodwin remembers when SRO Arnold Aubrey would be at Whitman all day, parking his police cruiser—a reassuring presence to some and a deterrent to troublemakers—outside the front doors. Aubrey would spend his shift getting to know students, offering advice with problems, and sometimes even helping to teach a health class or two. 

The officer no longer can spend that much time at Whitman, though he’s still available to search a student’s backpack for drugs when needed, arrest someone who has committed a crime, or catch a kid speeding through the school parking lot, Goodwin says. These days, Aubrey divides his time among Whitman, Walter Johnson and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools, setting a weekly schedule for visits to each school. 

“I might need him, and Walter Johnson might need him. Whoever makes the call first gets him,” Goodwin says. “He doesn’t have the opportunity to build those same types of relationships with students. You don’t have those same kind of opportunities when he’s running around—and you don’t have a police car in front of the building.”

The county assigns five additional patrol officers to help by taking shifts at high schools or responding if a school needs assistance. And the cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg supplement the SRO program by posting their own officers to the high schools in their jurisdictions. 

But the numbers fall short of other counties: In Virginia’s Fairfax County, a school resource officer covers each of the 53 public middle schools and high schools; in Prince George’s County, there are 22 covering nearly all of its high schools.  

So how do schools keep kids safe in the absence of armed guards?

At elementary schools, they lock exit doors once the children are in class. Many schools have electronic access control systems that enable the staff to see visitors and buzz them in. And installation at the remaining schools was accelerated after Sandy Hook. They should have them by the end of May, MCPS officials say. 

The buzzer systems are hardly foolproof. Jonica Gibson of Chevy Chase used to worry about staffers buzzing in people too casually at Rosemary Hills Elementary, her 7-year-old daughter’s school, though she thinks they’ve gotten better lately at asking visitors to state their business. 

Some schools, however, aren’t as vigilant, and people sometimes slip in as other visitors are entering or leaving through the door.

Ultimately, MCPS can’t “seal” its schools, says Robert Hellmuth, MCPS director of school safety and security. “We just have a lot of people who come through our schools.” All the district can do is limit access.

At the middle schools and high schools, most doors are locked during the day, but the main entrances remain open. The schools are protected by a force of 212 unarmed security guards, many of whom are retired police officers. Middle schools have one or two each; high schools average six. Poolesville High School has the fewest with three; Montgomery Blair High School, the district’s largest school with about 2,800 students, has eight.

These teams monitor doors and patrol hallways and school grounds. At the high schools, they also rely on dozens of closed-circuit television cameras to keep track of students, as guards did at Richard Montgomery during that gun incident last fall. 

“Technology does more than the gun does” when it comes to school security, says Kathy Greene, a retired county police detective and Montgomery Blair’s security team leader.

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