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Count up the funds spent to upgrade security in the St. Mary’s County public schools in recent years, and the money that may soon be spent, and it comes to millions of dollars.
But looked at in the light of the shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where a gunman left 20 kindergartners and a half-dozen adults dead, those with responsibility for the safety of the children in their care see no choice.
Already security vestibules have been retrofitted to all of the schools, intended to channel visitors to an office where they must sign in. Security cameras and electronic locks have been installed at many schools, and are planned for the rest. There are five armed sheriff’s deputies assigned to the schools. A cadre of security officers helps patrol the three high schools.
All these things are intended to improve the day-to-day security of the schools, spot intruders, break up fights and guard against vandalism and other disruptions. They are also, the hope is, a bulwark against violence, including the use of weapons by one student against others, as has been the pattern in a series of school shootings in the nation. Threats may be spotted and reported before any actions are carried out.
But with the heartbreaking loss of so many innocent young lives at Sandy Hook, new vulnerabilities suddenly loom. One is that classroom doors lock from the outside in St. Mary’s schools. If there is danger in the school, a teacher would have to step outside into the hallway to lock the door to protect the children in his or her care. Changing all the locks so they can be locked from the inside as well would cost $500,000.
Think about that. It will take half a million dollars to guard against the possibility of a person roaming a school hallway with mass murder on his mind. In a better world that would be unimaginable. But now, in this world, it would be irresponsible of school officials not to imagine it.
There is already an armed sheriff’s deputy in each of the three high schools, and two more who split their time among four middle schools. School officials, and the sheriff, have asked for funding for two more, so that each middle school would have one. There may be discussion now of arming all or part of the rest of the security staff at the high schools.
But the mass slaying at a Connecticut elementary school by a young man with no known motive and no known connection to the school short-circuits these precautions.
This was an external threat that couldn’t be prevented by a security vestibule and cameras, and the lives that were ended were of the youngest and most vulnerable of students. Deputies are assigned to the public elementary schools in St. Mary’s, but given current staffing that just means they stop by occasionally during the week in the course of their other patrol duties.
How to guard against the possibility of intruders with rapid-fire weapons invading any classroom in St. Mary’s? School officials will grapple with that, but others will have to address the broader question of how such weapons come into the hands of people who have made these precautions necessary.