Balto. Co. officials plan $3.7 million school safety package

School system faced gun incidents last fall

January 29, 2013|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

Cameras that stream live to police stations and patrol cars, new entry systems in all schools and a state-of-the-art visitor identification system are part of a $3.7 million plan unveiled Tuesday to improve security in Baltimore County public schools.

"We have no greater responsibility as leaders than to protect our children when they go to school each and every day," said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in announcing the proposal at a news conference in Towson, where he was joined by Superintendent Dallas Dance, Police Chief Jim Johnson and County Council members.

The County Council is scheduled to vote on the spending proposal Feb. 4.

The plan comes in the wake of last month's shootings in Newtown, Conn., and several gun-related incidents in Baltimore County schools early this school year.

On the first day of school, a 17-year-old student was critically injured in a cafeteria shooting at Perry Hall High. A few weeks later, an eighth-grader allegedly threatened a teacher and classmates with a gun at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex. After those incidents, Dance created a safety and security office within the 107,000-student school system.

Yet, Johnson emphasized Tuesday that school shootings are a rarity and said the community must find "a balance" in school safety.

"You don't want to make [school] feel like a fortress," he said.

Under the plan announced Tuesday, all elementary and special education schools in Baltimore County would get camera systems. Middle and high schools already have them.

The video would be streamed live to patrol cars, local precincts and the command staff at police headquarters. Police officers in middle and high schools would get mobile tablets so they could monitor the video.

Officials also want to install or improve electronic entry systems in the county's 169 schools, as well as a new visitor ID system. Kamenetz said he hopes the new technology will be in place by fall, but noted that the county must issue bids for the work.

Police plan to train school staff how to react in shooting situations, Johnson said. The training will initially be offered to administrators beginning next month, said Elise Armacost, a police spokeswoman. Officials will then evaluate whether more school employees should be trained.

Dance, Kamenetz and Johnson said they are continuing to review where safety can be improved. They are considering steps such as expanding a security presence in elementary schools, installing a swipe-card entry system for teachers and students, and launching mental health initiatives, Kamenetz said.

Officials hope for reimbursement through state and federal funding. Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget proposal includes $25 million to improve school safety statewide.

The plan announced Tuesday is in addition to $2.5 million allocated in Dance's budget proposal for safety measures. Officials had said previously that that money would pay for equipment such as cameras and monitors, but they said Tuesday that it will be set aside for future safety improvements.

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said she was pleased that the plan includes funds for securing entryways to prevent intruders, a safety concern for teachers. But she questioned the need to live stream camera footage from the inside of schools to police.

"It's like Big Brother watching," she said. "That is not what we want to see happen in our schools."

Dale Rauenzahn, head of the school safety and security office, said the plan is to put the new cameras in common areas, halls and entryways, as is already the case in middle and high schools.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said it's important for school and police officials to have a written agreement on how the cameras will be used. Across the country, many schools are rushing to purchase equipment in a sometimes "knee-jerk" manner, Trump said.

While in many cases the investment is a good thing, he said, it's just as important to reinforce daily procedures already in place to prevent the types of threats that are more common than shootings — such as stopping noncustodial parents from removing a child from school.

"We're cautioning schools to also remember to invest in the human side of security," Trump said. "Technology is only as strong as the weakest human link that's behind it."

In recent weeks, other school systems in the Baltimore area have taken steps to evaluate school safety after the Connecticut shootings.

In Carroll County, the Board of County Commissioners approved last month up to $650,000 for school security upgrades that might include a buzzer system and cameras at school entrances at each school, a key card access system for exterior doors, and incident training for school administrators and staff.

In Howard County, a Joint Task Force on School Safety, chaired by Chief of Police Bill McMahon, hosted two meetings this month with residents, and is expected to make recommendations for physical security and protocols as well as emergency response planning and prevention. And in Harford County, the school board approved this week a budget amendment providing $1.6 million for security measures at schools.

In Anne Arundel County, most schools have buzzer systems, and all have an electronic visitor-entry system that uses state-issued IDs to track guests and alert officials if a registered sex offender enters a school, said schools spokeswoman Maneka Monk.

In Baltimore City, officials are still in the early stages of drawing up the budget, but school police officers are receiving "additional and intensive training" to work with schools on safety management, schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

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