WASHINGTON – When gunman Joseph Palczynski was loose in eastern Baltimore County for 10 days in mid-March, about 28 schools in that area went into lockdown, locking doors and windows and keeping students inside to keep them safe.
The lockdown was nothing new to Baltimore County students. They had practiced it as part of the county’s Code Red crisis plan, which had been in place for the past five years, officials said.
Spurred by a rash of school shootings nationwide, including the Columbine High School rampage that killed 15 and wounded 23, school systems across Maryland are developing emergency strategies like Baltimore County’s Code Red plan.
“A couple of years ago it became obvious that we needed to expand our school crisis plan to include school safety and natural disaster issues,” said Lynn Linde, branch chief of the state’s Student Services and Alternative Programs.
Linde said the state has urged all county school systems to “have county and school-specific plans that address those things.”
After school shootings in 1997 in Kentucky and Mississippi, the state created an interagency steering committee on school safety in the fall of 1998, focusing on crisis planning and student mental health. The April 20 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., made the need for an emergency plan even more immediate, school officials said.
“I don’t think anyone ever perceived anything like that (Columbine) could happen,” Linde said. “I think it woke up a lot of people.”
Previously, the state focused more on what to do after an emergency, such as how to counsel students when a classmate commits suicide or what to do if a teacher dies and how to deal with the media in those situations, she said.
Currently, Montgomery and Baltimore counties have instituted crisis plans in all their schools. The plans vary according to the size of the school, its population and neighborhood.
Anne Arundel County schools held a mock-hostage situation last year in which police and firemen practiced their reaction to such a situation. The county school system is currently designing a similar drill in which students will take part.
Howard County officials also said they are in the process of designing a practice drill that will involve students in a mock-crisis situation.
All of the counties’ plans address what to do in a variety of emergency situations, such as in the case of an armed intruder, bomb threat or gas explosion.
Anne Arundel schools held their drill “because of what was going on across the nation,” said Leon Washington, the county’s special assistant for student discipline. “We wanted to see what things we needed to put into place to ensure safety.”
But some wonder whether such drills are really necessary, given the low probability that a shooting or severe emergency will happen at any individual school. A child psychiatrist with International Trauma Associates in Los Angeles said that the school attacks have made schools across the nation “hysterical.”
“Even though the odds are such that the probability (of a school shooting) is so low, schools don’t want to be exposed to any legal liability,” said Robert Butterworth.
“The problem is there are going to be some kids … that will get nervous about what is happening (during drills) and there are some kids that may copycat,” Butterworth said.
But the president of the National School Safety and Security Services said he completely disagrees with those who claim the drills scare children and normalize violence.
Kenneth Trump said that basic security is necessary in the schools, just as it is in the home or in other areas of the community. But to prevent students from getting scared, he said, principals must let students know exactly what is going on during the drills and why.
“When properly communicated to on the topic, kids understand it,” said Trump, whose company has been training teachers and school administration in security for four years.
But everyone agreed on one thing: Preventing school shootings is just as much of an important security measure.
“We continue to focus on crisis plans and collecting discipline statistics,” said Linde. “But the other broader issue is prevention.”
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