WASHINGTON – Maryland educators say that schools here are well prepared to prevent an episode like the Monday shooting at a California high school that left two dead and 13 injured.
While they acknowledge that violence can happen anywhere, officials here say precautions such as school-based crisis teams, rapid assessment of all threats and a statewide Safe Schools Tip Hotline can help avert tragedy.
“I really think that our schools have moved very far ahead in the last five or six years,” said Lynn Linde, head of pupil services for the Department of Education. “We’ve been doing a lot of this for a long time.”
But some educators note there is only so far they can go — or would want to go — in securing a school.
“There is no way you can absolutely prevent something of this nature from happening, short of keeping students separate from one another and from society,” said Keith Grier, director of student services and alternative programs at Charles County Public Schools.
“Are we saying absolutely nothing can happen in Charles County? Absolutely not,” Grier said. “We could probably have armed guards every three feet in the halls.
“I just think there’s a balance of what’s rational and possible,” he said.
Despite the limitations, most officials contacted this week said they are confident with the strategies state schools have developed to assess threats and to intervene once a situation is identified as risky.
Many schools have a two-step approach: If they learn a student has made a threat, officials first conduct a risk assessment and then call in outside personnel — such as police or mental health professionals — if needed.
“First of all, we have to unravel whether this is a true crisis for a child,” said Dale Rauenzahn of the two-step approach used in Baltimore County Public Schools. “Is this something the student is really fixated on? Is this something the child has talked about before?
“It’s really the administrator unraveling the situation and making decisions as to how to roll this thing,” Rauenzahn said.
Baltimore County requires that students expelled for violent behavior or threats be evaluated by school psychologist Linda Meade prior to readmission. She makes recommendations on the student’s placement, up to permaanent expulsion in rare cases.
Rauenzahn said the program has worked well. For the past four years, the school system has sent an estimated 80 to 85 students a year for evaluation, he said.
“What’s really nice about the service I provide is, I’m not mad at these kids when they walk in,” she said. “I haven’t seen these kids before and won’t see them again. . .so I can really sort through what’s going on without being emotionally involved.”
Still, she conceded that there are limitations on what even trained mental health professionals can do. During her assessments, she sometimes learns that the student’s family condones the behavior that got the student in trouble.
“You find out a million people in the family have been in jail for violent crimes,” she said. “If violent behavior is consistent with family values, I don’t know what in the world you’re going to do about that.”