2019 | Schools

Community Calls for More Counselors as MCPS Considers Safety Screening Policy

Policy would develop threat assessment teams in all schools

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More than 90 people have provided feedback about a proposed policy from the Montgomery school system to develop teams to screen for potentially violent students and community members.

Many of the comments have encouraged instead hiring more counselors and psychologists.

The policy would bring the school system into compliance with the Maryland Safe to Learn Act, signed into law in April 2018, following a mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.

Under the plan, behavior threat assessment teams will be formed at each school and include administrators, law enforcement and staff members trained in working with non-English language speakers and students with special needs and staff with experience responding to mental health crises.

Team members will attend a two-day training about how to react to threats based on where they fall in a “pathway to violence” scale that measures a person’s threat level. Threat levels range from low, with little intervention, to imminent threats which would require calling police and instituting a lockdown.

Students, staff or community members who made a threat against a school’s safety would be referred to community resources, police or mental health support depending on the result of the behavioral threat assessment.

Additionally, the policy has general charges, including that each student should have a “trusting relationship with at least one responsible adult,” and “all students, faculty and staff are treated with respect.”

The school system solicited comments about the policy for about three weeks, gathering 96 from community members, largely in support of the concept, but with many saying priority should be on hiring more counselors and psychologists who could help dissuade potential violence.

“I think the policy to improve safety and security is great, but the success of this policy will depend on significantly increasing mental health services in all schools,” wrote Paul Johnson, a part-time psychologist in the public school system. “Otherwise, it is another well intentioned initiative that we do not have the time to implement well.”

The school board has approved a budget that includes 20 new counselor and three psychologist positions.

Counselor positions at middle and high schools in Montgomery County are staffed on projected enrollment and a student-staff ratio of 250-to-1.

Catherine Reddington, another school counselor, said she believes the policy is good in theory, but fears its implementation is being rushed with not enough details released to staff and the public about its planned execution and methods to ensure its goals are met.

Other comments encouraged installing more security cameras, promoting physical activity and limiting access to cell phones during school hours would positively impact students well-being. A handful of comments did not address the policy.

During a committee meeting this week, Montgomery County Board of Education members reviewed public feedback it received about the proposed policy – many more comments than are usually gathered for new policies, longtime board member Pat O’Neill said.

“We haven’t had that many comments on a policy … in a long time, and it really speaks to how uneasy people are about this,” O’Neill said.

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