Ongoing Evaluations Sparked by Sandy Hook Shootings
While school administrators around the country debate the merits of a new report by the National Rifle Association recommending that schools train and arm teachers and other staff, Prince Georges County Public Schools officials are taking a measured approach on the issue of school safety and implementing several security strategies to keep the county’s children safe.
“Arming the world is not a solution, there’s more to it,” said Rex Barrett, deputy director of Security Services at PGCPS. “There is no magic pill. There is not one thing that is going to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”
The NRA’s National School Shield Report released last week suggests that armed personnel could help. It proposes that all public and charter schools be staffed with armed security officers or armed school employees to reduce the response time from law enforcement in the event of a school shooting. It also called for 40 to 60 hours of weapons training for teachers and other school staff willing to serve as armed protectors.
Briant K. Coleman, a PGCPS spokesman, said the district was reviewing the proposal and had no comment on it.
Barrett said the school district is making many adjustments to address the current reality of school violence.
“Our focus changed just like transportation changed after 9/11,” he said
Public schools throughout the county participated in a lockdown drill late last month to test the school system’s procedures for protecting students and staff in the event of an emergency. The drill was one of the school district’s latest efforts in response to the mass shooting last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., which resulted in the deaths of 20 children and sparked a nationwide debate about school security and gun control.
PGCPS manages 205 schools and serves 125,964 students, and according to the school district’s website, each school maintains an emergency plan that is consistently updated. While school officials around the country are focusing on enhancing security inside school buildings and denying access to potentially dangerous outsiders, PGCPS also has had to address a recent rise in student shootings off school grounds. Recently, two separate shootings left two county public school students dead within a 48 hours, marking the fifth and sixth student homicides in six months. The latest victims, 15-year-old Charles Walker and 18-year-old Aaron Kidd, were both students at Suitland High School.
Walker was walking down the street on the afternoon of Feb.18 when police say he was approached by a group of individuals in a van and told to give up a pair of boots he was taking to his girlfriend. Walker refused, police said, and after a confrontation with the suspects, he was shot and killed.
Kidd was killed the following day in a double shooting at an apartment complex in Forestville as he left a friend’s birthday party.
“We cannot go another day without addressing these unspeakable acts of violence against our students. We are asking for the community’s support as our students, teachers and employees cope with these incidents,” Coleman, the PGCPS spokesman, said in a prepared statement released on Feb 19.
The shootings left parents more worried about the safety of their children than ever before. Chantel Jones is one of those parents. Her 17- year-old daughter, Amari Jones, attends Gwynn Park High School in Upper Marlboro.
“I tell her to be aware of her surroundings and stay in groups,” Jones said. “When she was in middle school, I never felt like she was in danger traveling to and from school.”
Some teachers think more could be done to improve school security.
“I would like to see more police presence,” said Adriane Higgs, a fourth grade teacher at Samuel Chase Elementary School in Temple Hills, Md. “I don’t want the kids to feel like they’re in prison, but hand metal detectors would help. I would like to see more prevention before an act occurs.”
Dexter Alexander, a lifelong Waldorf resident whose15-year-old son lives with his mother in Clinton and attends Gywnn Park High School,is confident in the school district’s efforts to keep students safe.
“I have faith in PG County. This kind of violence is few and far between,” says Alexander.
The school district has taken steps to address school-related violence. Two school resource officers from the county police department are assigned to each high school, and at least one security assistant is assigned to each middle school. Regional security officers are also assigned to elementary schools. Additionally, there are a total 4,200 security cameras in all but 50 of the county’s 205 schools, about 25 to 40 in each school depending on the layout of the buildings. PGCPS security officials hope to have cameras installed in the remaining 50 schools by the end of the year, according to Barrett of Security Services at PGCPS.
School and county police officials believe that much of the recent violence has been related to gang activity initiated outside of schools. The Gang Education and Intelligence Unit created in 2010 informs elementary and secondary school students about the dangers of gang association through educational presentations.
Another initiative is Campus Crime Solvers, a cooperative effort with the County Crime Solvers, which offers cash rewards for individuals who provide information about local crimes. The schools system’s website says the program will be introduced and implemented in all its public schools by 2013.
Prince George’s County Police spokesman Lt. William Alexander says that “kids often have information and are aware of what’s going on in school” and can aide police by providing that information anonymously through the county’s referral hotline, 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).
Shenelle Coates, whose son is a third grade student at Samuel Chase Elementary School, supports the steps the district has taken to boost security.
“After what happened at Sandy Hook, schools across the country should begin improving their security,” she says.