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
More than 170 of the district’s 206 public schools now have secure vestibules with one or two sets of locked doors that only allow access to one area of the school, according to MCPS. At Eastern, for example, visitors who are buzzed into the front doors face another set of locked doors and can only access the main office, where they must use the visitor management system before advancing into the school.
New schools are designed with secure vestibules, but creating such entranceways at older buildings often requires retrofitting, which is underway at numerous schools in the county. All other doors at schools, including those in portable classrooms, are supposed to remain locked at all times once the school day begins. Staff and students are instructed not to let visitors into any school buildings and to direct them to the main entrance, but officials acknowledge that it can be difficult for students to ignore requests when others want to enter through locked doors. Many schools have posted signs on exterior doors directing visitors to the main entrance for admission.
The school system has long employed closed-circuit TV cameras to monitor activity outside and within high schools and middle schools, with middle schools averaging 70 to 80 cameras per school and high schools more than 100, according to MCPS. Cameras are expected to be installed at all 134 elementary schools by the end of the 2019-2020 school year, officials say. Also, more than 800 MCPS buses are equipped with interior cameras.
State law requires each public school to undergo a safety evaluation by June 15, 2019, and MCPS officials are working with public safety experts to develop new safety plans for each school. Determining the best way to secure the district’s 414 portable classrooms—a longstanding concern for MCPS staff and parents—will be included in those plans, officials say.
Other measures include improvements in the screening, hiring and training of school security staff, as well as the allocation of staff at secondary schools. Security staff are assigned to high schools and middle schools, with as many as nine posted to a high school depending on its size and needs, according to MCPS. At Whitman, for example, five security staffers monitor about 2,100 students. Each MCPS high school is assigned a school resource officer (SRO)—an armed police officer trained to serve in schools—who is on duty each weekday and is also responsible for handling issues at the middle and elementary schools in that cluster when necessary. The officers park their cruisers out front. By the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, districts were required under state law to assign an SRO to every school or demonstrate that “adequate local law enforcement coverage” will be provided. The county police department says its current staffing enables sufficient coverage, and there are no plans to assign officers to middle and elementary schools.
“We just don’t have enough officers,” says county police Capt. Liz Hattenburg, who oversees the school resource officer program as director of the Community Engagement Division.
Last Oct. 12, students at Walter Johnson High School approached school resource officer Shaté Jackson with some startling news: On Oct. 5, a former student had posted a Snapchat photo of himself carrying an AR-15 rifle and displaying the words “school shooter” along with threatening statements directed at the school.
Within days, county police tracked down and arrested Luis Amilcar Cabrera of Rockville, then 18, and charged him with one count of threatening mass violence. Cabrera pleaded not guilty to the charge in December and was found guilty in March in Montgomery County Circuit Court. He was scheduled to be sentenced June 7, according to court documents.
“It actually is a perfect example of how it works and how we want it to work,” Hattenburg says. “The kids felt comfortable speaking to the SRO about something that bothered them. The SRO contacted our investigators, and they took it from there.”
Building relationships and creating a culture in which students respect themselves and others can be more effective at keeping schools safe than turning them into fortresses, officials say. “We could add many more cameras, we could add metal detectors if they were called for down the road, but…making sure there’s a relationship in that building with other adults, that’s where we’re going to be most successful,” Clarke says. Establishing those relationships has become more critical as schools deal with threats posted on social media. “What we try to encourage to the students is if you see something, say something, do something, to get them to come forward to a trusted adult in that building.”
MCPS is also promoting cyber civility through programs implemented in all grades, as well as issuing guidelines for the use of social media by staff, officials say. The MCCPTA’s Gillian Huebner also reminds parents that they have a responsibility when it comes to their children’s use of social media. “There’s some parenting malpractice out there when it comes to not monitoring what our kids are doing online,” she said during a school security meeting in February.
The day after the Parkland shooting, the threat of school violence hit close to home when Clarksburg High School senior Alwin Chen was arrested for bringing a loaded Glock 19 handgun to school, sparking fear among parents and students. Attorneys representing Chen, who later pleaded guilty to carrying a handgun on public school property, maintained he brought the gun to school to protect himself and others against a potential school shooter. In April 2018, he was sentenced to three years in prison, with all but four months suspended, plus five years of supervised probation.
While such incidents incite fear about school shootings, MCPS statistics show that of the nearly 1,400 reported “serious” incidents that required police involvement during the 2016-2017 school year (the most recent statistics available), 106 involved weapons or a facsimile of a weapon. About one-third of the incidents were in the categories of disruptive behavior, fighting, physical assault/attack, sex-related, and physical or verbal threats. More than 130 incidents involved drugs.
School officials say paying attention to students’ mental health is a major key in preventing school violence and helping to identify students who may be susceptible to harming themselves or others.
Under the Safe to Learn Act, public school districts in the state were required by September 2018 to name a coordinator for mental health services who is tasked with ensuring that students who exhibit troubling behavior receive wraparound services that may range from crisis intervention to legal aid, whether through school or community services. In addition, districts must establish a behavioral threat assessment team to identify and intervene with students who may pose a threat to school safety.
MCPS is taking a comprehensive approach to students’ mental health by developing a “physical, social and psychological well-being” framework that encompasses some programs already in place in schools, says Christina Conolly, director of psychological services. Programs focusing on suicide prevention—now taught in all middle and high schools—conflict resolution, and restorative justice, which emphasizes the repair of harm caused by a person’s behavior, are important tools because data shows that many school assailants were bullied and were suicidal, Conolly says. MCPS is also working on incorporating concepts such as recognizing the signs of suicide into its curriculum—for example, discussing the topic during lessons on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
On Feb. 28, Principal Elizabeth Hamilton is preparing to conduct a drill that will test how students in grades 4 through 8 at St. Jane de Chantal School handle evacuating the building when warned about an intruder. After last fall’s active-shooter training, Hamilton instructed teachers to talk to students about what to do if there is an attack. All classes also read author Julia Cook’s I’m Not Scared… I’m Prepared!, a children’s book that presents the concepts of the ALICE training in a nonfearful manner.
Students reacted well to the story, embracing the idea of fighting off an intruder, which staff referred to as a “wolf,” Hamilton says. “I don’t think the kids are afraid. They see it as a game because you don’t talk to them about an active shooter, you talk to them about a bad man.”