Pa. shootings spur safety reviews at county schools

Officials note recent measures aimed at making schools secure

October 08, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

In the aftermath of the killings of five Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania, the question arose in communities across the nation: Could it happen here?

Harford County is no exception. Principals are directing reviews of safety procedures, school security officials are emphasizing recent improvements, and parents are expressing cautious confidence about the well-being of their children.

"An incident like Lancaster jars us," said Bob Benedetto, director of safety and security for county schools. "It shows we can't get complacent. Security is not convenient."

School officials point to recent initiatives as examples of the effort to make schools safer, such as a visitor management system that scans driver's licenses - checking names against a list of convicted sex offenders - and prints temporary photo identification badges.

Though most of the county's about 50 schools are using the system, a few are still practicing with the equipment and will be using it by Nov. 1, Benedetto said, adding that he was working on upgrading the $300,000 system.

The county recently undertook testing of proximity card readers that allow teachers and staff members to open doors by waving ID cards, a program that could be expanded if successful.

"We have tried to enhance safety measures all along, not just in a knee-jerk reaction," Benedetto said, referring to the Pennsylvania school shootings. "Our philosophy is one way in, and that's the front door. Schools must virtually control who is coming into the building and must be virtually locked down."

In the wake of the shootings, some parents said they consider the county schools safe.

"My children don't understand why the incident happened there, but they are not afraid," said Susan Schlegel, president of the PTA at Prospect Mill Elementary near Bel Air. "They know their school is really big on safety."

Lorraine Duvall, also a Prospect Mill parent, agreed while waiting in her car in the school parking lot to pick up her four children last week.

"There are checks and balances all over this building," she said. "The teachers are really responsible."

The impact of the Pennsylvania killings was particularly acute among officials at two small, private schools in rural areas of Harford County not far from the Pennsylvania border.

Highlands School in Street, which has 45 children with learning difficulties in grades two through eight, began practicing emergency procedures that were put into effect several years ago, said Patricia Bonney, the school's executive director.

The procedure entails a "code red" announcement over the school's public address system that prompts teachers to lock classroom doors with deadbolts and move the pupils as far from the doors as possible.

"We have always had deadbolt locks on the doors, and we have always had the emergency policies in place," Bonney said. "But this latest incident hits so close to home and it's so fresh in everyone's mind, we decided that we need to practice the drills."

Beth Maahs-Hoagberg, educational director at the school, said, "A month ago we were not thinking about things like this. And now we're practicing how to handle it like it's a fire drill."

Safety policy also is being emphasized at Harford Friends School in Darlington, which is in its second year of operation.

"We have a protective policy in place at the school. We just hope that we never have the occasion to act on it," said Jonathan Huxtable, head of school at Friends, where 13 pupils in grades six and seven receive instruction based on Quaker philosophy.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Cassandra A. Fortin provided reporting for this article.

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