Newtown shooting revives discussion of school safety in Montgomery County -- Gazette.Net


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Montgomery County school, government and community leaders say the shooting last week at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut reminded them to make sure the county is doing all it can to see that children are safe in school.

On Friday, a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook, in Newtown, Conn., killing 20 children and six adults.

Community leaders agree that only so much can be done to protect students from violence such as this, but preparedness, training and security can help.

Robert Hellmuth, director of school safety and security for Montgomery County Public Schools, said it might be a good time to revive conversations about school security countywide, although school system officials believe they are taking “every single precaution” possible to keep students safe.

“Like in probably every community around the country, people are concerned,” Hellmuth said Monday. “People are shocked and I think that everybody is always concerned about their own community and thinking about their own children.”

Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr sent his condolences to the families of Newtown in a press release Friday, stating that Montgomery will continue to make safety a top priority.

County Council Vice President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said the county will not set up a work group to study school safety because of the event, as is being done in Howard County, but there will be a countywide discussion.

Montgomery County police officers were outside of most elementary school buildings on Friday afternoon, and before and after school Monday and Tuesday, in order to provide reassurance to parents, police spokesperson Angela Cruz said.

Some principals emailed parents using the school system’s ConnectEd system, such as Lawrence Chep, principal of Rachel Carson Elementary in Gaithersburg.

“This event reminds us that we must re-examine our safety and security procedures and not be complacent when things are calm,” Chep wrote.

School counselors were available to help students and staff cope, Starr wrote.

Parents believe that Montgomery Schools are safe, but every community could enhance its training and preparedness, said Donna Pfeiffer, health and safety co-chair of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.

“Unfortunately, tragedies like this that shake our inner core remind us that maybe we need to do more,” she said.

Every school develops its own emergency procedures, and the school system reviews the plans, Hellmuth said. Last school year, the county’s 131 elementary schools reported that they conducted 232 lockdown drills, 327 shelter drills, 29 evacuation drills and 1,327 fire drills.

All schools are required to do at least four emergency drills each year, he said, whether they be for a lockdown for an intruder or sheltering for severe weather. If a school does not conduct four drills during a year, security officials visit the school to talk to them about how to improve, Hellmuth said.

Pfeiffer said schools need more drills and training.

The school system has improved its security measures at elementary schools during the last six years by adding access control systems that place surveillance cameras at the school’s main entrance and an intercom system that allows school staff to talk to visitors before they allow them in, Hellmuth said.

The systems have been installed in all but 22 of the school system’s 132 elementary schools, and will be in all by the end of next year, he said.

Also by the end of next year, all schools will have a computerized visitor management system that will allow schools to request a visitor’s ID, scan it, and electronically monitor who is in the building at all times, Hellmuth said.

All schools have security officers, employed by the school system. Six police officers, called school resource officers, are assigned to patrol the county’s 25 high schools daily. Before budget cuts during the last four years, the county had one police officer assigned to each high school and its feeder schools. Parents have fought since to see that the positions are restored.

Pfeiffer said the tragic event should help persuade county officials of the need to reinstate the resource officers in all county high schools.

With their current assignments, school resource officers spend most of their time at high schools, although they do try to visit the high school’s feeder elementary and middle schools when possible, Montgomery County police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks said.

Although the officers are assigned by high school, Pfeiffer said they used to have more time to visit elementary schools when just assigned to one high school.

Rice, who has pushed to get the officers back into schools, said he believes it is an “implementation issue and not a process issue.”

He said it will take more conversations with the police department, not necessarily more funding, to make it happen.

“It is hard because no one wants to take police officers off the street,” he said.

The police department and the school system always have worked together, but especially since the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Starks said. That shooting spurred changes nationwide to school safety procedures.

Starks said Police Chief J. Thomas Manger met with Starr on Friday to discuss added police presence this week, but he did not know what long-term discussions there were, or will be.

“We really like to think of ourselves as a partner with the school board in ensuring a safe environment in the schools,” Starks said.

Staff Writer Sylvia Carignan contributed to this report.

jbondeson@gazette.net