Cecil County Sheriff, Schools Outline Plans to Keep Kids Safe in School Shootings Aftermath

March 27, 2018

As the nation mourns the loss of 17 students recently in the Parkland, FL school shootings, Cecil County schools and law enforcement officials held a public briefing Monday evening (3/26/2018) to detail longstanding, and new, initiatives designed to protect students in county schools. But as policy and political debates rage nationally and on local social media, there was just a handful of county parents who bothered to show up to listen to what steps are being taken here.

The worksession of the county Board of Education in Elkton had been promoted on some Facebook posts before the event and on the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) website. Many local social media sites have been abuzz with political debates about guns and whether calls, by the Parkland students and others who marched en masse on Washington last weekend, for gun reform legislation would threaten gunowners’ rights.

School violence hit Maryland recently, when a young shooter attacked two students in St. Mary’s County but was confronted by an armed school resource officer. As the investigation continues, it is still uncertain if the shooter killed himself or died as a result of shots fired by the officer. That incident, as well as the Parkland deaths, prompted Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to propose a $140 million package of school safety initiatives. On Monday, Hogan urged the General Assembly to act quickly in the waning days of the legislative session to enact his plans, saying that “classrooms should never be a place of fear.”

Cecil County Sheriff Scott Adams, who headed the School Resource Officers program that places deputies in county schools before he was elected Sheriff four years ago, said Cecil County was ahead of most other police agencies and employed cops-in-the schools “before they were called School Resource Officers.” Now, the Sheriff’s office has SROs stationed full-time at Bohemia Manor, Perryville, Rising Sun and North East High Schools, while the Elkton PD places officers at Elkton High. Although the officers are deployed to the schools, their salaries and other costs come out of the Sheriff’s budget paid for by county taxpayers.

Gov. Hogan’s legislation proposes $50 million in state funds for hiring SROs around the state as well as more school counselors.

Cecil County’s Sheriff’s Office has initiated a ground-breaking program of training groups to react to “active shooter” situations through its “ALICE” training program. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.) Since its inception here in mid-2016, over 3,000 people have been trained, including county employees, members of the County Council, businesses, emergency staff at Union Hospital, Cecil College and public library staffs, and teachers at private schools in the county, according to Sgt. Michael Kalinsky, who works with the Community Resources Unit and often wears a heavily padded red suit to play the “Redman” villain in ALICE role-playing exercises during which the trainees may act out aggressive responses to “counter” a bad guy.

Adams explained during the worksession that after the Virginia Tech campus shootings, national law enforcement experts realized that the “lockdown” only philosophy—in which students would just shelter in place– was not effective in protecting lives against a determined, roving shooter. A more pro-active response plan was needed, he said, and one that trained students and teachers to respond in a multi-faceted way.

A video created by Cecil College students, shown at the worksession, illustrates training on multiple responses, such as barricading a classroom door, preparing to challenge an attacker by throwing heavy textbooks, chairs, desks and even small items like staplers, to deter an attacker or get him to move on from that classroom.

ALICE training of CCPS teachers and staff began in May,2017, and so far, 1,080 staff and teachers have been trained. There are also training videos that have been viewed by staff and teachers at all county schools. Another eight schools will be getting further training soon to be “certified” as ALICE-trained, Kalinsky said.

Dr. D’Ette Devine, superintendent of CCPS, said that when the Sheriff’s Office first broached the idea last summer of doing hands on training with elementary school pupils, “my heart was palpitating” and she was concerned that such young children might be severely frightened. But a special curriculum, crafted with child psychologists, gently teaches children to run away from “the big bad wolf” and to follow their teachers’ instructions.

The Sheriff’s Office and teachers conducted a mock drill, after the children had gone through the Kiddie-ALICE program, at North East Elementary School and recorded the evacuation of the school using the Sheriff’s drone technology. The overhead video shows children following teachers in fleeing the school to pre-arranged sectors outside, huddling with teachers and staff in small groups and remaining in place as other groups of students fled the building. Over 670 kids and staff evacuated to safety, school officials said.

Dramatic music was dubbed into the video, but the sight of so many young children running in an organized fashion and then staying still in designated areas was amazing in its own right—just ask any parent who has endured the “are we there yet” fidgeting and whining from the back seat of their car. From the overhead distance, these children appeared to be fully co-operative and stayed in place without straggling away or wandering off from their tight-knit groupings.

CCPS also provides a comprehensive program of counseling and services to identify students who may have psychological or emotional issues that could lead to school violence.

Dr. Carolyn Teigland, associate superintendent of administrative services, presented a color-coded chart with a maze of buzzwords to illustrate “social and emotional supports” provided to troubled students. CCPS not only uses school-based counselors but arranges for students to receive more intensive psychological services from outside professionals, including Upper Bay Counseling in Cecil County and specialized programs in Baltimore.

Safety improvements to county school buildings have recently become a political issue, as CCPS initiated a mid-year budget amendment to divert about $6 million in “unassigned fund balance” money—essentially, surplus funds accumulated by CCPS due to underspending or cost savings in overall operations—to some non-essential spending, including $2million for a sports fieldhouse at Perryville High School. (County government general funds provided $1 million to Perryville High in the current budget year for the county’s first-ever artificial turf sports field.)

The recent amended CCPS spending proposals put on the back-burner multiple school safety construction projects, giving the field house top priority over immediate safety projects such as secure vestibules at school entrances. Instead, CCPS shifted 6 security-related projects into its new budget proposals for the Fiscal 2019 budget, at a total cost of $1.5 million that the schools want county taxpayers to provide, according to a CCPS spreadsheet.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy is scheduled to present his new Fiscal 2019 budget proposal to the public on Friday, 3/30/2018.

Although it is currently unknown how much of Gov. Hogan’s school safety legislation will pass the General Assembly, or how much money Cecil County will qualify for, the national and state tragedies of school shootings that prompted Hogan’s proposals may provide a fiscal bailout for security measures, over the CCPS’ “fieldhouse first” building plans.

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