Baltimore Co. seeks to identify school threats

Helping students report and teachers identify suspicious behavior is key

  • School Superintendent Dallas Dance said the school system will launch a new Office of Safety and Security after the second gun incident in two weeks.
School Superintendent Dallas Dance said the school system… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
September 15, 2012|By Kevin Rector and Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

As he rode the morning school bus and sat in first-period class Tuesday, the 13-year-old student at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex gave no indication that he had a cellphone-size gun in his pocket — much less that he planned to pull it on his classmates and teacher, according to official reports.

But other clues — vaguely alarming comments to classmates, unorthodox or unusual changes in behavior — were likely there in the preceding days, weeks or months, waiting to be identified and pieced into a pattern, say experts on school shootings.

"One hundred percent of kids broadcast intent beforehand," said James McGee, retired director of psychology and forensic services at Sheppard Pratt Hospital and former chief psychologist of the Baltimore County Police Department. "Perfectly normal people don't suddenly snap and take a gun into school."

As county officials develop procedures for preventing violence following the Stemmers Run incident and a shooting at Perry Hall High, McGee and others are calling for a focus on improving communication among students, teachers, and administrators in the 106,000-student system.

Administrators need to tap into the gossip that dominates middle school and high school social scenes, and train teachers on the type of student behavior that should push them to compare notes, experts say. Such improvements in communication will lead to safer schools more readily than metal detectors or similar measures, they add.

"Can you imagine, every day, a thousand kids passing through a metal detector that has someone sitting there monitoring the thing?" McGee said. "In terms of the actual payoff, it just doesn't make sense."

Instead, administrators must use students and teachers as their eyes and ears to identify students who are in need of an intervention, said Katherine S. Newman, author of "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings."

"Unless you're monitoring a gazillion Facebook sites or something, it's very hard for people outside of those [school] communication circles to spot these random outbursts," said Newman, dean of the Johns Hopkins University's Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "The best policy is trying to make it as easy as possible to let kids come forward."

McGee said that in a study of 20 planned school shootings, 17 were prevented because a female student came forward with information about the would-be shooter. "Other kids know who these guys are beforehand," he said.

Last week, county schools reminded students to report suspicious behavior to adults.

Already in Baltimore County, teachers, counselors and others charged with overseeing the performance and well-being of students face a changing landscape of individual needs and issues.

The number of students who qualify, because of a low family income, for free or reduced-price meals has jumped drastically. While 16 percent of high school students received the meals in 2001, 38 percent received them in 2011. Among middle-schoolers, the number jumped from 29 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2011.

In many public schools, "we've got so many kids that are coming to school without the kind of basic resources that families and communities have traditionally provided," said Courtland Lee, professor in the school counseling program at the University of Maryland's College of Education. "Schools have to be more sensitive to the comprehensive needs of students … Because they're not being addressed anywhere else, I think the challenge is: How can schools pick up the slack?"

Schools must also understand the needs of students from different backgrounds, including various types of families, such as those headed by grandparents, single parents and same-sex couples, he said.

County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance wants to review the system's staffing levels for counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends that a counselor have 250 students at most. In some county schools, a counselor has 450 students, Dance said.

"The counselors who have 450 kids do an amazing job," he said, "but I think as we look at our staffing formulas throughout the year ... we will have to make sure that school support services stays on the forefront, because we are dealing with students who have things they need to talk about, and we need to provide them with people who they can talk about them with."

County schools ensure that middle and high schools get more counselors as their student populations grow, said Tim Hayden, coordinator of school counseling.

Dance added that "every single kid in every single school deserves to have someone in that building who knows their name, and it doesn't need to be a counselor, psychologist and social worker. It can be a teacher, a custodian, a cafeteria worker — but they need to feel connected to somebody. If they feel connected to one person in that building, they can go to that person when they're having some issues."

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