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St. Mary’s College security officers not armed

St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s rules, and the state’s laws, are enforced by a cadre of public safety officers. The special commissioned officers on campus do not carry guns.

President Joseph Urgo said that it is common for rural campuses not to have armed security patrols, but that universities in urban areas often employ armed officers. He said he has no plans to arm public safety officers on campus.

Fewer than a dozen officers patrols the St. Mary’s City campus of about 2,000 students for drug and alcohol violations, parking infractions and other law-breaking activities.

“If we need armed support on campus, it’s close by,” Urgo said, adding that the college has a good relationship with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office and that officers are minutes away in emergency.

St. Mary’s College right now is without a director of public safety after David Zylak, a former St. Mary’s County sheriff, was forced to resign last summer.

Roberto Ifill, dean of students, said a new director has been offered and accepted the job. The candidate, who Ifill said is not from St. Mary’s County, is going through an extensive background check and could start early next month.

He said the new director will oversee about 11 public safety officers as well as a few support staff.

“It’s not a police force, although it does deal with providing safety for people on the campus, primarily the students,” Ifill said.

Urgo in December signed a petition with more than 170 other college and university presidents calling on President Barack Obama (D) and Congress to take immediate action on gun control, including strengthening background checks on gun purchases and reinstating the ban on military-style assault rifles along with high-capacity ammunition magazines. The letter also stated opposition to legislation allowing guns on campuses or in classrooms.

Obama unveiled his sweeping agenda on gun control measures Wednesday that involved about two dozen executive orders as well as suggested legislation for Congress. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) also this week announced steps and laws he would like to see enacted in the state along with enhanced mental health services.

When asked his thoughts on armed guards at elementary, middle and high schools, Urgo said he did not think that would stop an incident like the Connecticut school shooting last month.

“I think it would be unfortunate if we had to move in the direction of having armed guards in elementary schools,” Urgo said. He said he would not support arming security assistants, teachers or other school staff.

He clarified by adding that a visible presence of sheriff’s deputies or other law enforcement at a school can be positive.

Jesse Yeatman

Upgrading safety and security in public schools is often an easy, but expensive, sell when it comes to discussing how to protect children.

St. Mary’s County’s school officials, with the assistance of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, during the last several years have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on school safety measures, and have created a separate safety and security department headed by a retired Charles County sheriff’s deputy.

The board of education will spend upward of $1 million on security cameras and electronic locks once all schools are outfitted, based on estimates from contracts. Adding vestibules at the entrance to every school and the manpower added over the last several years in the name of keeping schools, and the students inside, safe costs hundreds of thousands more.

And then came the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month, leaving 20 students and a half-dozen adults dead.

“Our holidays were definitely a little darker because of the event,” Superintendent Michael Martirano said.

It caused school leaders and communities across the nation to take a sharper look at their own schools.

Immediately after the shooting in Connecticut, Martirano sent several emails and a phone message to all parents followed by another call from each child’s principal. He presented an update on St. Mary’s public schools’ safety measures to the board of education last week.

“The main goal was to keep the community calm. Our community calm,” the superintendent said.

He said he would like to be able to say that there was no chance that something like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School would ever happen in St. Mary’s County.

“We can’t ever have the guarantee,” he said, adding that he and others can work to make schools as safe as possible.

There are currently more than 300 security cameras at 14 schools and two school offices in St. Mary’s County, Mike Wyant, director of safety and security, said. Those cameras can be monitored remotely by school personnel through the Internet. Within two to four years that number will likely more than double as cameras are installed at all of the schools. The vast majority of cameras now are at middle and high schools, as well as some of the elementary schools in the Lexington Park area.

Wyant said outfitting an elementary school with between 15 and 20 cameras costs $20,000 or more. Installing a complete camera system with equipment runs $50,000 or more for a larger school.

There is an armed sheriff’s deputy, referred to as a school resource officer, in each high school and two others are shared among the county’s four public middle schools.

Deputies are also assigned to each elementary school through the “Adopt-a-School” program. Those deputies drive to their school occasionally throughout the week to check in.

There are also 14 safety and security assistants, paid for through the school board’s operating budget, who patrol county middle and high schools. More security assistants and officers could be added in the future, school and police personnel have said.

“We’re doing a lot, but the reality is, we need to never let our guard down,” Martirano said.

He said that schools in St. Mary’s have many security procedures in place, including what are called security vestibules at all public schools. Those vestibules direct any visitor through the front door into the main office, where they must sign in at a computer and have their photo recorded.

Twenty schools and two administrative offices now use electronic locks on exterior doors, at a cost of between $10,000 and $20,000 per building. Teachers and other staff carry photo identification badges that can be swiped at an entrance to unlock the door.

The school board would need to spend another $440,000 to put camera systems at 13 school sites that currently do not have cameras, to finish installing electronic locks at the seven remaining schools, and to outfit more doors with electronic locks at the other schools, Wyant said.

Those help prevent duplicate keys and, when lost, can be deactivated, Wyant said.

However, problems can arise when classroom trailers are added to the mix. Students cannot re-enter the main school building without a teacher escort, which sometimes leads to doors being propped open.

“When a door is open, the school is vulnerable,” Martirano said, adding that students, teachers or other staff members should never prop open back or side exterior doors with rocks, mulch or anything else.

One immediate weakness recognized in the aftermath of the shooting in Connecticut is the inability to lock an interior classroom door from the inside. Most of the classroom door locks can only be activated with a key from the hallway side of the door, Brad Clements, deputy superintendent of schools and operations, said.

That would mean a teacher would have to duck out into the hallway to lock the door if there were a shooting or other serious disturbance in the school, he said.

Martirano said it would cost about $500,000 to retrofit all classroom doors in the county to be able to lock from the classroom side.

“I can’t put a price tag on the life of a staff member or a child,” Martirano said.

He told the school board he would likely be adding supplemental, one-time expenses for security enhancements to next year’s proposed budget. The community needs to advocate for those safety measures, Martirano said, if they expect the county commissioners to fund the requests.

jyeatman@somdnews.com