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School safety debate in Anne Arundel centers on resources; Officials look to security upgrades, mental health support and SROs to help

Maryland Gazette - 8/22/2018

Parents are rushing to back-to-school sales. Students are savoring the last days of summer. Teachers are getting ready to prepare lesson plans.

But one underlying question remains: Will schools - public and private - be safe?

In the wake of shootings at schools near - Great Mills in St. Mary's County - and far - Parkland, Florida, and Dixon, Illinois - officials are busy implementing new security measures to make Anne Arundel County schools safer.

But 16-year-old Mackenzie Boughey, who is about to start her junior year at the Severn School, is worried about the next school shooting.

"These school shootings feel normal to me," Boughey said. "This is our normal."

The debate surrounding school security has traditionally been a battle over resources and how to use them. Do you make capital upgrades, like security cameras and double-entry points, or do you add counselors, school resource officers and mental health professionals to identify at-risk students?

Boughey organized a roundtable discussion to try and answer those questions and more with a panel of students, teachers and state and local officials on Wednesday. She also planned the March for Our Lives in Annapolis, which drew hundreds to Lawyers Mall in March.

One thing was clear from the discussion - there are no easy answers to keeping schools safe.

Making security upgrades

Local officials recently prioritized students' physical safety. County Executive Steve Schuh in March proposed a $15 million plan to upgrade security that included placing more officers in county schools.

Students and parents this year can expect to see 10 new school resource officers, security cameras, double-barrier doorways and upgraded locks at various schools in the district, according to school and police officials. Anne Arundel County police will introduce bulletproof shields to every school in the district, said police spokesman Marc Limansky.

Some of these additions were hashed out in March when the County Council approved $1 million in funding for school security. Other security upgrades will come this school year if the council approves the school board's $5 million request when it resumes meetings in September.

County schools spokesman Bob Mosier said he is "confident" council members will approve the school board's request that could lead to more security cameras and double-barrier doorways.

Steuart Pittman, the Democratic candidate for county executive, said he would continue to invest in school safety like Schuh, and would consider expanding the current $15 million plan.

However, Pittman said money, alone, will not solve gun violence.

"I don't think we can spend our way out of gun violence," he said. "I agree that the 'red flag law' is a great place to have a conversation."

The "red flag law," passed in May, allows judges to force gun owners who are deemed a threat to temporarily surrender their firearms. Resource officers became commonplace in schools after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, said Ed Clarke, executive director of the Maryland Center for School Safety. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 officers nationwide.

"The role (of a school resource officer) is not to arrest students," Clarke said. "It's about prevention and intervention and helping students who might be in crisis."

Mental health issues

State Sen. Ed Reilly, a Republican who is a gun owner, supported the idea of introducing gun safety instruction in school health classes. County Board of Education President Julie Hummer called for a change in school culture. Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley suggested lawmakers focus on "macho guys who think they need a hundred guns."

Panelists agreed the county - and much of the state - does not invest enough in mental health support.

Susan Turnbull, a candidate for lieutenant governor with Ben Jealous' campaign, said school violence "is a health issue."

"If you invest in the beginning by having mental health counselors, people who are trained and able to spot things, that's an investment that will save lives, that will save trauma," Turnbull said.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, held up a poster dotted with pink and blue stickers at the Wednesday night meeting. The pink stickers, which represented school counselors, were overwhelmed by the blue ones - students. The poster portrayed the student-to-counselor ratio at Oak Hill Elementary School: 696 students for one counselor. The American School Counselor Association recommends 250 students for every counselor.

Schuh's school safety proposal - to be funded over two years- includes plans to place mental health professionals in schools. Schuh in May said he would increase the number of counselors and mental health professionals in the school district by way of a $640,000 allocation in the county's budget.

Maryland schools average 373 students for every counselor, according to data from ASCA. But counselors only represent a piece of the solution.

"School counselors do provide mental health support, but from a standpoint of providing clinical treatment they don't provide treatment," said Lachelle Metcalf, an ASCA spokeswoman.

Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, said capital upgrades in schools are not always the best use of county funds.

"They would be much better off spending the money on resources on schools, particularly people who are trained to work with young people, like counselors, people who do mediation versus law enforcement."

Where the money goes

School officials have focused much of their attention - and resources - on physical security, investing millions in capital upgrades like double-barrier doorways that are under construction at Old Mill elementary, middle and high schools, Shady Side and Brock Bridge elementary schools, and Central Special School.

Annapolis High School installed the double-barrier doorways last year and Arundel, Glen Burnie and North County high schools will install theirs in the fall, said Maneka Monk, a spokeswoman for the county schools.

The double-barrier doorways in the Old Mill complex that connects the elementary, middle and high schools are designed to prevent visitors from accessing common spaces, like the schools' cafeteria and auditorium.

Credit: By Lauren Lumpkin - Staff writer


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