ELKTON — Since the deadly shooting at a Florida high school last month — and a more recent shooting closer to home at a school in St. Mary’s County — the issue of school security has been thrust to the forefront of the national debate as school systems grapple with the best way to keep students and staff safe.
Cecil County Public Schools is no different and while the system has had to deal with new issues such as the emergence of social media threats and philosophical changes in active shooter response training, school officials want the community to know that they have a plan in place that has been developed and updated over the years to ensure schools are as safe as possible.
Amid these heightened concerns over school safety, CCPS officials and Cecil Count Sheriff Scott Adams gave a presentation to the board of education Monday night outlining the system’s school safety plan. The more than hour-long presentation covered topics such as dealing with social media threats, law enforcement partnerships, secure entrances and building access, and the system’s new active shooter response training.
For those who would like to hear the information for themselves, a similar presentation will be given as part of a town hall on school safety set for 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 2, at the Cecil County School of Technology in Elkton.
“Given all that has occurred around us recently, including very recently here in Maryland, it is important that we try to inform our community of all the efforts we make daily to keep our students and staff safe so the students can learn,” Superintendent D’Ette Devine said.
CCPS has a long history of being proactive when it comes to school security, officials noted, but adjustments must always be made, something that has happened most recently when it comes to threats on social media. Both Adams and Devine emphasized that all social media threats are fully investigated and urged people not to share the threats on social media but rather to report them by calling 911. Devine and Adams both said if the perpetrators are caught they would prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.
But Adams noted that modern technology that allows people to disguise their phone numbers or IP addresses makes it very hard for investigators to track down these social media threats. And once a threat is made, it stays on social media forever, which means old threats can resurface and cause more panic, which also happened a few weeks ago, Adams said.
“Social media is a nightmare. I think the world would be a much better place without it,” Adams said, noting that despite the prevalence of fake threats, every threat is treated as if it’s real. “It’s frustrating on everyone’s end and I don’t care how much you harden a school, it doesn’t fix the social media rumors or threats. You can have the Seal Team 6 at a school and they can’t stop someone from putting a fake post up, which causes the same kind of panic — and rightfully so.”
Outside the cyber world though, CCPS is also working to make sure all its brick-and-mortar buildings are secure. This includes the use of secure entrances, which are entrances designed so that when visitors are buzzed into a building they are funneled directly into the main office and don’t have access to any other parts of the school.
The topic of secure entrances generated some controversy for the school system recently, after the school board decided to use nearly $5 million from its fund balance to finance a number of school projects, which included four secure entrances and security cameras at high schools but also included funding for a field house at Perryville High School.
While funding for five more schools without secure entrances has been included in the system’s fiscal year 2019 small capital projects request, several members of the county council as well as school board vice president Jim Fazzino — who voted against the fund balance allocation — expressed concern about not funding those remaining secure entrances using fund balance money.
On Monday night, Perry Willis, CCPS executive director of support services, said the system currently has 11 buildings, including the Carver Center and the administrative services building, with secure entrances. Not counting the four included in the fund balance and the five in the budget request, another 10 buildings still need to be addressed, Willis said.
The school system is also looking into ways to address security at the portable classrooms located at many schools. Willis said he’s currently exploring the idea of adding wrought iron fencing — similar to what is around the courtyard at North East High School — around these classrooms.
Even at schools that don’t yet have secure entrances everyone must be buzzed in to the building by school office staff and a system also records data on all school staff who enter buildings using their school ID badges, Associate Superintendent for Administrative Services Carolyn Teigland said.
Every CCPS building also undergoes a tactical site survey once a year, which involves a law enforcement walkthrough of the building with school administrators to make sure everything is up to safety standards, she added.
The system’s safe schools coordinator Randy Sheaffer also makes unscheduled visits to every school once a year to assess safety and then issues a report card. In the event a school doesn’t meet standards — which is rare — Sheaffer talks to the school about what to fix and then returns unannounced at a later time to make sure it’s been corrected, Teigland said.
All schools also have a Crisis Emergency Response Team (CERT) and a plan that is also specific to each school. Those plans are also reviewed by Sheaffer on an annual basis, Teigland said.
Finally, one of the biggest recent changes to school security has been the switch from the shelter in place response to active shooter situations to using the ALICE method, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. The method, which all schools will be fully trained in by the start of next school year, emphasizes “survival tactics” such as fleeing, barricading doors, swarming the shooter and keeping in close contact with law enforcement.
CCSO, in partnership with the North East Police Department, recently conducted an ALICE drill at North East Elementary School, which involved a deputy dressed in a “red man” suit posing as the shooter. Some classrooms barricaded their doors to stop the red man, while others were able to flee to safety out the back of the school. In the end, it took roughly 670 people 4 minutes and 35 seconds to fully evacuate the school, Teigland reported.
Students are also being exposed to ALICE through picture books at the youngest level while high school students are being shown short videos that demonstrate what to do, Teigland said.
In general, school officials told the board that they believe they are doing all they can to be proactive when it comes to school safety.
“We don’t have 100 percent guarantees to give, unfortunately, I wish we did,” said Adams, who is also the parent of two CCPS students. “I wish I could tell every parent in the county, ‘Your kids will always be safe.’ We do everything that we can in our power to make sure that’s the case but there’s no 100 percent guarantees. But we’ve come as close as possible with what we do though.”
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