- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
St. Mary’s County public school and law enforcement officials outlined Monday safety and security initiatives that are in place now and others that should be used to protect students and school employees from potential violence.
Ideas for stopping criminals were far reaching at the quarterly meeting of the superintendent’s safety and security advisory committee held Monday afternoon. Schools have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security assistants, electronic locks, video cameras and other features put in place in recent years, and plan to spend much more in the name of student safety.
A list of program goals already completed includes $755,000 in initiatives. Another six “priority” goals in the works would cost $1.87 million, and 10 other goals would add $604,000 to the list. The 32 initiatives are projected to cost at least $3.2 million. Much of that would be an annual expense for salaries or maintenance.
Superintendent Michael Martirano said that in the days and weeks following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, his office was inundated with ideas from the public about how to improve the safety of schools. He said the ideas ran the gamut, including what he called extreme examples like installing metal detectors at each school entrance and fencing in every school to create a lockdown environment.
Other ideas even less likely to be put in place included using “sticky rugs” to slow down an intruder or launching nets to entrap an evildoer, he said.
Emails sent to the superintendent also included suggestions like having armed security guards at all schools, adding buzzer systems to the front entrances and putting bulletproof glass in doors and windows.
County Commissioner Dan Morris (R) said last month he would like to see teachers go through military-style tactical training.
“Our schools are not penitentiaries,” Martirano said. “There’s a level we operate with trust.”
Martirano said schools have been instructed to tighten up their visitor policies, and that while some parents may be offended that they can no longer walk around a school unimpeded, that is necessity for security reasons.
All visitors must check in through a computer system when entering a school through a security vestibule, and they must have a valid reason to be in the school, he said.
Ultimately, though, vigilance and the willingness to tell a principal or authority figure about potential impending violence is a school’s best defense, Martirano said.
“It’s OK to inform,” he said, adding that there are confidential hotlines and other ways to report anonymously.
Law enforcement weighs in
Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said at Monday’s meeting his office needs to work closely with schools to create safe community spaces.
He wants to expand the school resource officer program by at least two more officers. Currently there are five armed officers assigned to schools — one at each high school and two shared among the four middle schools.
He said he would like to assign at least two more deputies so each middle school has a dedicated school resource officer. Later, Cameron said he is considering adding a total of four more school resource officers, including two to help oversee security at elementary schools.
The sheriff’s office already partners with schools in the Adopt-a-School program, which has a deputy voluntarily attach themselves to a particular elementary school. The deputies are to visit their school regularly, and can sit in the parking lots to fill out reports.
Lt. Michael Thompson, Leonardtown barrack commander, said that mental health of students and adults needs to be part of the conversation about school safety. He said that everyone needs to be more vigilant and willing to report potential problems as resources for mental health treatment are cut in the state.
The state police commander asked if teachers and others would be a “sheep or a sheep dog” if a dangerous situation arises in schools, adding that teachers should be ready to take action to protect themselves and their students.
Thompson said that the state police and local sheriff’s office work well together, and that they have participated in drills to prepare for emergencies like a shooter in a school.
The school system also has developed sophisticated visual maps of some St. Mary’s schools that are available via any officer’s or deputy’s laptop computer through the Maryland Virtual Emergency Response System. Creating the virtual maps costs $6,000 per school, for a total price tag of $180,000, and completing those maps for all schools is one of six priorities outlined by Mike Wyant, director of safety and security for the schools.
The costs of safety
Wyant said he would like to essentially double the number of safety and security assistants by adding 12 new employees assigned to patrol public schools at a cost of $600,000 annually, starting as soon as next year.
He said he also is considering a program that would allow parent volunteers to act as guards at the front doors of schools. They would not have guns, Wyant said.
He said having off-duty police officers patrol schools is “being considered.” All sheriff’s deputies are expected to receive swipe cards this month that would open the electronic locks in all of the county’s public schools.
The superintendent has proposed splitting the $500,000 cost of replacing all interior classroom locks between the school board and the county commissioners. New locks would allow teachers to secure their doors from inside the classroom, not just from the hallway side as is the case now.
Roy Fedders, a member of the advisory committee, asked why he hears from others that school doors are routinely left open or unlocked. He also said that schools need to be aware of domestic situations that may arise.
Martirano said that schools deal with custody issues or other family matters “on more than a regular basis,” and that secretaries and principals are trained to identify such incidents.
Wyant and Martirano reiterated that teachers, students or school staff should never prop open an exterior school door, as happens often when classes go outside to play or to a portable trailer classroom. Martirano said that propping a door open leaves the entire school vulnerable to an attack.