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Jan 17, 201311:59 AMEducation Matters

Are Our Kids Safe in School?

Jan 17, 2013 - 11:59 AM
Are Our Kids Safe in School?

While sitting in the front row during my seventh-grader’s winter concert one night last week, I couldn’t help but notice the darkness outside the windows and glass doors of the Eastern Middle School cafeteria.

As the sweet sounds of the chorus filled the air, I wondered if those doors were locked. Suddenly, I was aware of just how easy it would be for someone to enter the back of the room and open fire on the rows of parents and students.

I started thinking: What would I do if a gunman stormed the room? We were sitting on metal folding chairs; would those stop a bullet if we used them as shields?

To the left of my seat was an upright piano. If some of us moved fast enough, would we be able to push it sideways and form a barrier from the stage to the side door so the kids could escape?   

I wonder how many other parents have had similar thoughts since last month’s horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

The shootings of those 20 innocent elementary school students and the school staff who tried to save them have caused us all to focus like lasers on school security. We want to know whether our kids are safe in school. We want to know how we can protect them from the random act of a deranged gunman. We want to know if the incident at Sandy Hook can happen here.

That’s what drew nearly 200 people to the headquarters of Montgomery County Public Schools on Wednesday night for a forum on school safety and emergency preparedness sponsored by the Safety & Health Committee of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teachers Associations.

I left the session, which ran two-plus hours, with two main thoughts: Our kids are as safe as they can be in MCPS schools. And yet no school district can promise that an incident like Sandy Hook will never happen.

And that is a fear that we all have to put in its proper perspective.

Here’s what the panel of MCPS leaders, county council members and police officers told the crowd: MCPS is nationally recognized for its school safety and emergency preparedness efforts. The district has detailed plans for handling security threats and emergencies and school personnel are routinely trained in procedures, said Bob Hellmuth, director of school safety and security.

In addition, MCPS is accelerating plans to complete the installation of access management systems in all county elementary schools by the end of the school year. County council member Phil Andrews said he expects the council will approve spending the money needed to get the job done.

And county police are prepared as well. Ever since two teenagers went on a shooting rampage in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the department has focused on changing protocol, weapons and tactics to deal with such situations.

“We’ve gotten pretty good at that and we’re going to continue to build our response,” police Commander Luther Reynolds said.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement. County police Chief Tom Manger led the call for more police officers to be assigned to MCPS high schools. Each of the county’s public high schools used to be assigned an officer–known as a school resource officer—but county budget cuts and the need for more officers on the streets in recent years have reduced the total assigned to six. The cities of Gaithersburg and Rockville each supply an officer for their county high schools.

School resource officers, officials said, have proven valuable in alleviating possible threats from within a school community by getting to know students and building relationships. Council member Craig Rice, who has fought for more school resource officers, noted that these officers and MCPS focus on the day-to-day safety of students, not “an anomaly” like the Sandy Hook incident. That’s because any security measure, even those at banks and federal courthouses, can be vulnerable to the random attack, he said.

“If somebody wants to get in to a school and is determined to do so, security measures can be compromised depending on how much work they want to put into getting into that building,” Rice said.

If that should happen, MCPS would do its best to manage the crisis, relying on school staff and the police to implement the training they’ve all received in handling security threats and emergencies, Hellmuth said.

And that may be the best we can do. After all, we need to remember that we are a community that has survived the grip of fear and uncertainty before. We’ve lived through 9/11 and the month of terror caused by the sniper shootings in 2001.

Let’s hope we never have to again.

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