About 120 county school administrators are getting a lesson this week on how to handle semiautomatic pistols, revolvers, brass knuckles and Ninja throwing stars, a step that could save lives -- and lawsuits.
The goal in the program, the first of its kind in Maryland schools, is to teach educators how to handle weapons safely and how to legally seize them from students.
"We want to give them a pro-active approach to follow, but we also want to let them know the legal aspects involved in searching someone," said county police officer Mark J. Maggio, who has lectured 25 to 30 principals and assistant principals each day.
Most of the administrators were surprisingly comfortable loading and unloading magazines from the semiautomatic pistols, and seemed to cock the Raven .25-caliber semiautomatic with relative ease.
"I am surprised at how easy they are to handle," said Edward E. Alexander, the county director of elementary schools, who attended Monday's session. "But it's absolutely frightening to think these are on the street and are available to just about anyone."
Alexander said weapons training has become a necessary lesson to be learned in a location as violent as the Baltimore metropolitan area.
"One of the upheavals of our time is violence. The more we know, the more important it is," he said.
James R. McGowan, the associate superintendent of county schools, requested the training last November after a loaded small-caliber handgun was seized from a 16-year-old student at Howard High School.
"Even though it was a very rare incident, we felt that we should learn a lesson from it and teach our people how to take proper precautions," McGowan said. "We hope we don't encounter these weapons, but we want tobe prepared for anything."
And the staff has had plenty to handleduring the demonstrations. Among the guns being passed around the classroom are Colt .45s, pearl-handled Derringers, Belgian-made Brownings and .22-caliber semiautomatics.
"You remember the Son of Sam killings? Well, he used one of these. It's a .38 Special Police Bulldog," Officer John D. Paparazzo told Monday's group. "I'm going to pass it around. Hold it, get a feel for it."
About 25 other weapons also were passed around, including a sawed-off Winchester rifle, a switchblade, belt-buckle blades and even a Taser stun gun, which crackled with the sound of electric sparks as Paparazzo explained rules of gunsafety.
"We didn't go out and buy these. We seized them from people, so they're out there," he said. "A lot of them are cheap to buy and are easily obtainable, but every one of them will kill you quickerthan anything."
Nearly every gun has different unloading and safety features, so "you'd have to take up a second career in order to learn to handle every gun," Paparazzo said.
But the one cardinal rule of gun safety is perhaps the most simple, he said.
"If you're going to pick it up, always carry it by the handle," said Paparazzo, the county police firearms training master. "A lot of guns go off accidentally, because people don't know to grip them by the handle."
Judy Bressler, an attorney from Reese and Carney who is the legal representative for the Board of Education, provided guidelines for teachers to follow in removing weapons from students on school grounds.
Police do not have the legal right to search lockers or other personalproperty on school grounds, but principals, assistant principals andschool security guards do, Bressler said.
Also, if a student is suspected of carrying drugs, alcohol or other non-violent contraband, police can't search the person since there is no threat of imminent danger, Bressler said. But school administrators may search students for such items as long as they are on school grounds.
Both Bresslerand the police officers said that the news that a student is carrying a gun should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Often, they said, the best approach will be to have the student watched secretly until police arrive to conduct the search themselves.
But in some cases where a student appears likely to threaten someone with the weapon,it may be necessary for a school official to intervene. In such a case, some school officials decided, it may not be advisable to summon the student to the office via the public loudspeaker.
"Simply put,there is no substitute for your exercise of your best judgment," Bressler said.