Preparing for the Worst
When it comes to keeping students safe from an armed assailant, local schools say hiding in a locked classroom is no longer the only option
At Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, a handful of students approached counselors after the February training, according to Principal Chris Nardi, who says a previous program on suicide prevention drew more visits to counselors. He says the school took a different tack with the student training. Seeking to quell anxiety, staff called it “Unexpected Events” training, and discussed drills for reacting to severe weather emergencies before segueing into options for dealing with an attack.
Grace McGuire, a sophomore at Walt Whitman, says she wishes the training had provided answers tailored to her school about what students should do and where they should go. She also was bothered that her teacher seemed to agree with every suggestion from students, such as pulling the fire alarm if a shooter is seen—which county police say not to do. “There were ideas [from students] that would make it more dangerous for students, and the teacher was kinda like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good thing to do,’ ” she says.
Sarah Craven, Grace’s mother, questioned the value of spending class time to train students, noting that Parkland had conducted active-shooter drills before the 2018 attack. Published reports say those drills took the form of a traditional lockdown. “My gut reaction is a general weariness of this and also a profound sadness of what has happened in our society, that this is how we’re focusing our school time and our taxpayer dollars,” Craven says. “By doing this preparedness, are you creating anxiety and fear where there wasn’t before? Did it have any impact with Parkland or not?”
“Attention Students and Staff members. This is a practice Lockdown with Options active assailant alert drill. I repeat, this is a practice Lockdown with Options active assailant alert drill,” Principal Joey Jones announces over the intercom system at Robert Frost Middle School one morning in April. “Here’s the scenario: There’s an intruder in the building by Room 109. Students, staff and visitors must go to the nearest safe area immediately.”
Students and staff at the Rockville school were told about the drill in advance, and Jones had notified parents through email and phone messages. MCPS is planning to use the experience at Frost as a model for how the drill should be run in schools, and expects to develop a video from footage taken by students on the school’s Frost Byte News team.
Jones, Clarke and Cedric Boatman, a MCPS cluster security coordinator, join other staff as they quickly move through the eerily silent halls, checking to see how teachers and students are responding—whether they’ve fled from the school or locked down in a classroom, barricading the door and moving out of sight. Checking a hallway on the lower level, they find that classrooms near where the supposed intruder would have entered are now locked down. Paper covers the door windows. As Jones rattles the locked doorknobs, not another sound can be heard. Heading upstairs, staff members can see by looking through exterior doors that a number of classes left the building and have gathered on a school field.
Moving along a hallway on the main floor, three administrators stop outside the band room, noticing that the paper that’s supposed to cover the door windows is skewed, leaving open a gap of about an inch. Peering into the gap, they see a classroom of children sitting in the dark. They also notice that the room is just a couple dozen feet from an exit door. “They should’ve actually gone outside,” Jones says.
“Yeah, because the door’s right there,” replies Jennifer Cooper, assistant school administrator. They note that a substitute teacher who may not know about the safety protocol is in charge that day.
Minutes later, Jones and the staff members overseeing the drill gather for a debriefing. The group agrees that while the school performed well overall, the drill revealed some issues: A few teachers in classrooms with doors leading outside chose to lock down instead; the kitchen staff should have left, but kept working behind locked doors; and two substitute teachers did not follow protocol. Substitutes must receive Lockdown with Options training, they note.
After the debriefing, Jones, who was recently named Maryland Middle School Principal of the Year by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, says he disagrees with those who think that holding drills will do more harm than good. “If we don’t do these drills, we will not know the little detail situations that we have to address,” he says. “I think it actually lowers anxiety having more knowledge and information about the situation. Certainly it’s a little uncomfortable when you are preparing and in the middle of it, but after you see the benefits of it you know you are doing the right thing.”
On a crisp blue-sky day in late February, an off-duty Montgomery County police officer sits in a parked cruiser with its blue and red emergency lights flashing in the driveway of the Annette M. & Theodore N. Lerner Family Upper School Campus at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville. Anyone approaching the school, which serves grades six through 12, can’t help but notice the cruiser—or the cement bollards that line the front of the building like soldiers standing at attention.
That’s the point, says Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school at CESJDS, which also has a lower school that serves children in prekindergarten through grade five on a different campus. “It’s real security, and it’s a deterrent because people see it and notice it,” he says, pointing out that the officers hired by the school and stationed at the two campuses also patrol the grounds.
Aware that the campuses of the Jewish school could be a high-profile target for an anti-Semitic or anti-Israel assailant, Malkus says school officials regularly consult with a task force of experts, including the security director for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., to keep abreast of what additional security may be required in light of world events.
“Every time there’s a shooting, you get a call. Or anytime there is a terrorist event anywhere in the world, parents reach out with concerns,” he says. “We’re constantly thinking about what’s changed in the situation, what might we still need to do in terms of enhancements.”
Along with emergency preparedness, securing facilities is a major focus of school safety around the county. Today’s students at local private and public schools attend classes in buildings that are most likely equipped with cameras and other security enhancements. Parents and visitors can no longer enter schools freely throughout the day. Access is often controlled and funneled through a locked set of doors, and visitors are required to show identification before gaining entry.
The Safe to Learn Act establishes statewide standards and guidelines regarding public school safety and includes funding—even for nonpublic schools—to increase law enforcement coverage and secure schools more effectively. The law includes measures to improve emergency management at schools and better serve students dealing with mental health issues as well as identify students who may present safety threats. Last October, the state launched a tip line, 1-833-MD-B-SAFE, for anonymously reporting threats or concerns about other students.
MCPS is in the midst of a multiyear strategic plan involving school safety and security enhancements; an estimate of past and projected spending for staffing and instruction is more than $100 million, officials say. Efforts to improve school security are ongoing, including a systemwide modernization of the access control systems that use cameras at school entrances and an upgrade of the visitor management system. Visitors now must present identification that is screened and cross-referenced with sex offender registries by a computer system that also prints paper badges with photos to be worn at all times on school premises. The district is not planning to install metal detectors in schools, officials say.