High school practices drill of a different kind Violence: Baltimore County task force to recommend steps to safeguard schools, including lockdown plans like Owings Mills High's 'code red.'

November 24, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Kris Antonelli, Stephen Henderson and Erika D. Peterman contributed to this article.

The principal's announcement was short and blunt: "We have a code red in the auditorium. A code red in the auditorium."

With that, the classroom doors of Owings Mills High School slammed shut. Students moved away from windows. Administrators hurried to the school's command post. Owings Mills High was in a lockdown.

Responding to last year's spate of shootings at schools nationwide, Owings Mills held its first "code red" drill yesterday -- a precursor to what likely will become a standard safety practice for schools throughout Baltimore County.

"You don't want to ever have to use this kind of plan, but you don't want to be unprepared in case something happens," said Assistant Principal Ralph Murray. "It's something we've become more aware of in the last year after what has happened around the country."

Tonight, a Baltimore County task force will present the school board with a series of recommendations on ways to prevent and respond to violence. One is that all 160 schools have lockdown drills at least twice a year.

Other recommendations include expanding alternative schools for violent children and providing money for schools to install closed-circuit televisions and buzzer systems.

The drills proposed for Baltimore County are far different from lockdowns in some city schools, where personnel sweep the halls for intruders and disruptive students.

The "code red" drills are intended to practice keeping hallways clear and students safe in case of an emergency, such as the shootings that occurred in Arkansas, Oregon and Pennsylvania last school year. Schools also would continue their required monthly fire drills.

'We should have a plan'

"We've really never had a dangerous fire in this county when children were endangered in a building, yet we routinely practice just in case," said former Baltimore County school board President Calvin Disney, chairman of the Acts and Threats of Violence Committee.

"We don't expect a shooting to happen, but we should have a plan."

General John Stricker Middle School in Dundalk put together its "Emergency Crisis Management Plans" about two years ago after a tornado touched down nearby and left school administrators wondering what they would have done had the school been hit.

"If there's a situation where we don't want students in the halls and want to lock down the building, everyone knows exactly what they're supposed to do," said Wayne D. Thibeault, the school's principal.

Drills rare nationwide

The drills by Baltimore County schools make the district one of only a few in the nation to rehearse for anything other than fires or natural disasters, said Marjorie Walsleben of the National School Safety Center in Westlake, Calif.

"Schools should prepare a crisis control plan, and they should prepare by practicing," Walsleben said. "But we haven't heard about very many schools doing that."

In the Baltimore area, the Howard County school system doesn't have a countywide policy or drill related to school intrusions. However, a school violence "action team" is considering such a recommendation, said school system spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

No plans in city schools

In Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, school officials say they have never considered such drills.

At Owings Mills High yesterday, the plan that the staff began putting together last spring got its first test at 9: 09 a.m.

Two minutes after Principal Margaret Spicer made the schoolwide "code red" announcements over the intercom, teachers began calling the front office to account for every student in the building.

The hallways were empty. In most classrooms, teachers locked the doors, moved students away from windows and then resumed their lessons. Junior Mollye Mikula and the rest of her advanced placement American history class continued with their exams during the drill.

By 9: 20 a.m., the drill was over. "We're on code green," Spicer announced. "Thank you for your cooperation."

While the drill wasn't perfect, it went fairly well, Spicer said. "This was our first practice, and we'll practice again to make sure we know what to do."

'Something you worry about'

For the 1,125 students of Owings Mills High, yesterday's drill was both a reminder of potential dangers and a reassurance that school administrators are prepared.

"It's good we have something like this, because of all of those situations with gun violence and schools," said junior Darrin Carter, 16. "It's something you worry about."

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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