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Schools get safer, but not safe enough

You are sadly mistaken, if you don’t think this can happen at your school - those are words spoken by J. Scott Mills, superintendent for St. Mary's County, Maryland, after another school shooting, this time on March 20, at Great Mills High. An armed sheriff's deputy stationed at the school shot and killed the 17-year-old student who shot two other students with a handgun.

Schools around the country, including those locally, are playing catch up on school safety and security, as clearly demonstrated by the Valentine's Day Massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, In that incident, a former student walked in, tripped the fire alarm and killed 17 students and injured 14 others at the school using a semi-automatic weapon he had legally purchased.

Local law enforcement and schools have received numerous threats since, and are prosecuting even false threats of terrorism. As Oakland County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Paul Walton said, the days of schools sitting down with students and their parents and working things out are over. “Now, schools are reporting everything to the authorities.”

Who can blame them? Since 20 first graders were slaughtered in their school at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, local districts have been investing in school safety and security upgrades, notably by adding school liaison officers and securing the front entryways of school buildings so that only one entrance is unlocked, everyone – including parents – has to be buzzed into the building and state their purpose and then be routed to the office. Many also have surveillance cameras.

We were pleased to hear from Rochester Schools that their entry system also has lockdown capabilities. “Locks that latch from the interior side of the classroom door are being added, and video surveillance cameras are being installed in the schools and on buses. An updated districtwide telephone system and public address (PA) system will also ensure proper notification and warning during an emergency,” district spokesperson Lori Grein said. However, word that not all buildings have been upgraded, as their bond efforts go through 2020 is extremely concerning, because the reality is that there isn't time to take it slowly. This must be a priority – nationwide, there were over 700 copycat threats in just the first two weeks after Parkland.

We also have to question the advantage to any district to having one school resource officer, or school liaison officer, from a police department or sheriff's department – who is spread out over numerous district schools, when unfortunately, schools are the targets they are today. We are definitely not proponents of arming teachers or staff in schools – but armed law enforcement officers stationed in schools offer a plethora of benefits. They not only are the boots on the ground in the event of a mass shooting event – if they happen to be at the targeted school, as in the case of Great Mills High in Maryland – but further, when trained personnel are in schools on a regular basis, they can build relationships with students. That can allow them to catch problems, and potentially identify not just difficult, but spiraling students and work with other professionals to get them the help they need. They also are ears in the school, hearing what's going on, and allowing other students to feel comfortable to confide in them and share tips.

What does seem ridiculous to us is Birmingham Schools' bringing in security guards to their high schools – and leaving them without the weapons to protect students and staff. There is no value in hiring bodies for show.

We were impressed, however, with Birmingham Superintendent Daniel Nerad's emphasis on constant review, that their safety and security plans and programs are “living, breathing documents. Sadly, you cannot be stuck at where you were when you wrote them. You have to continually revise.”

That is one reason we were frustrated and disappointed when Detroit Country Day School, The Roeper School, Academy of Sacred Heart and Brother Rice High School all declined to share or discuss their safety efforts. Shame on them. It's not a secret. They have an obligation to the community at large to let them know they are working on security efforts and protecting students and staff.

We're all in this together. If the worst were to unfortunately happen, we would all come together, with law enforcement, the medical community and the public rushing to assist and prevent further damage. As these shooters, whatever their warped minds or motivations have shown, we're all in this together. And it's not going away anytime in the near future.

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