Active-Shooter Training To Reach All Schools by June

New guidance has raised worries about raising anxiety, fears in younger children

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Ed Clarke, director of school safety and security for Montgomery County Public Schools, speaks in a video about school safety.

PHOTO VIA MCPS

As new training is being given to Montgomery County’s public school students and teachers on how to react to gunmen in schools, opponents of similar programs nationwide are calling for more research into how the exercises impact childrens’ mental health.

The active-assailant training builds on traditional guidance to flee or hide when danger arises to include alternatives, such as confronting an active shooter, which has spurred unease from some parents.

The situational training is adapted for different grade levels and doesn’t include active drills, but allows students and staff to discuss ways to stay safe in a number of situations.

“We’re trying to build a foundation in these drills so fear and anxiety is lessened in a real situation, allowing people to think about the steps they can take to protect themselves,” schools spokesperson Derek Turner said.

The training is one facet of stepped-up security measures being taken in the state’s largest school system and mentioned in a mid-year report issued this week where the school system reported progress on adding surveillance cameras, securing entrances and strengthening visitor check-in procedures.

All middle and high schools now are outfitted, inside and outside, with security cameras and nearly all schools have secure entrances, according to the report, which said all schools will complete active assailant training by the end of the academic year in June.

A state law enacted last year directs all 24 school systems in Maryland to have “age appropriate” active-shooter training as part of regular safety drills.

Developed by the schools’ safety staff and Montgomery County police, the training highlights steps students and staff can take to protect themselves if they are not in a secure room when a lockdown is enacted.

The suggestions range from leaving the building and calling for help to using nearby items for self-defense.

Gillian Huebner, chair of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations’ subcommittee on school climate and safety, said the school district’s new chief safety officer Ed Clarke has helped develop and implement the best possible training.

Clarke formerly was the director of the Maryland Center for School Safety, the entity that sets statewide mandates for school safety protocol.

“Montgomery County has the best person in this line of work on staff now, so I hope that gives MCPS parents a collective sigh of relief to have someone this up-to-speed on the issues is on this,” Huebner said.

Now at the helm of county school safety, Clarke has helped expand the availability of armed county police school resource officers.

Previously, resource officers worked four, 10-hour days but this school year are on site each day schools are in session. Resource officers are assigned to each of the county’s high schools, according to the county police department.

The Federal Commission on School Safety, convened in the wake of a February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, recently released recommendations to enhance school safety nationwide. Its proposals include highlighting the importance of school resource officers.

“Those best positioned to respond to acts of violence are those with specialized training such as school resource officers (SROs) who are generally sworn law enforcement officers,” the report reads.

Meanwhile, the new active assailant training is in its infancy, rolled out to a handful of high schools in late 2018. It will take the rest of the school year to conduct the training at each of the district’s 206 schools, especially at the primary school level.

“There’s a high school-level of thinking about this, and even at the middle school level, it can be processed, but at the elementary level it’s something very different,” Turner said. “There’s a lot to think about there; you can’t encourage 3- or 4-year-olds leave the school on their own in an emergency, so how does it look for them to defend themselves?”

At the high school level, Turner said students discuss safety measures that could be taken when addressing an armed assailant, but students are reminded they’re not required to take action.

Nationwide, 40 states, including Maryland, require individual schools to perform exercises or drills to test emergency plans, and the implementation of active assailant training brings the number of mandated drills to be conducted annually at each Montgomery County school to seven.

However, some scholars have said active assailant training can cause students to feel anxious and apprehensive in the school environment.

Recent studies have backed those claims, adding that active shooter drills can trigger a fascination in vulnerable students, but the same researchers say more work needs to be done to determine the full effect on students.

During and after the training, counselors and psychologists are available for Montgomery County students, school officials said.

“It’s a tough thing to process, especially if you’re old enough and mature enough to understand what has happened in schools across the country,” Turner said. “You can see yourself in those scenarios and while we understand the urgency of conducting the training, we want to make sure we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t harm students.”

In this week’s message to families, the school system said it is also working with public safety experts to develop school-specific safety plans and “behavioral threat assessments.” All employees are in the process of being re-fingerprinted and it will continue to be done in cycles, as opposed to the previous system that only required fingerprinting at time of hire, according to the school system.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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