Shooting at Great Mills High School on Tuesday (March 20th, 2018) frightened all of us. It is a too-close-to-home example of the terrifying incidents that have stolen the lives of precious young people around the country. More and more parents and students are becoming anxious, in some cases too afraid to go to school at all.

Although activists are loudly demanding action, no one seems to be able to agree on the best way to keep our children safe at school. Fortunately, Howard County Public Schools are taking steps in the right direction.

Like public schools everywhere, HCPSS has detailed procedures for emergency situations which include lockdowns, sheltering in place and emergency communications.  Students and teachers now practice emergency drills together more frequently, building their confidence that they are ready if disaster strikes from fires, severe weather or a dangerous intruder on campus.

Recently, schools received improved radios and updated their emergency plans, among other security enhancements.

Each HCPSS school is also assigned a school resource officer.

But depending on a rapid law enforcement response while training students and teachers to shelter behind desks and locked doors cannot be our only response. There is more we should do.

It’s popular among some to suggest arming classroom teachers so they can defend themselves and their students from a violent intruder.  This radical idea seems poorly thought out and does not have the support of Superintendent Michael Martirano, who expressed vehement and well-argued opposition to the idea when asked to testify at the state capitol earlier this month.

The arm-the-teacher idea also lacks support from the majority of Howard County staff, students and parents. In addition, experts warn teachers are not trained as law enforcement officers. The potential for accidents also increases if more guns are in the hands of educators untrained or uninterested in using them. The majority of teachers in Maryland oppose the idea of carrying guns.  It would create friction and divisiveness – in addition to safety concerns – to require educators to carry and possibly use weapons against their will or in opposition to their personal convictions.

But we can arm teachers in a different way.

Superintendent Martirano has suggested a thoughtful, three-pronged approach to HCPSS school safety that includes increased training for staff, offering more mental health services for students, and enforcing stricter sign-in procedures for visitors.

Sign-in is especially important in light of a recent investigation by the Baltimore Sun which found most reporters were able to easily walk through the doors of Maryland schools without conversing with school staff or identifying themselves. Rectify this seems fairly straightforward; we can hold schools accountable for following the established visitor security procedures, which include keeping doors locked, requiring facial and verbal identification before allowing guests to enter, and a mandatory sign-in and badging protocol.

Martirano is also correct in emphasizing the need for more mental health resources for students as well as additional staff training. The two go hand-in-hand.

Research shows the risk factors for youth violence include high levels of emotional distress; family dysfunction, including parental substance abuse; violent victimization; learning disorders; and low emotional attachment to parents or caregivers. Students with these risk factors need sustained intervention to learn to handle their painful circumstances in a healthy, balanced way that increases their social skills and ability to form meaningful relationships.  We should support adding counselors and special educators who specialize in working with youth from such traumatic backgrounds.

Training our educators is the other piece of a mental-health approach. Teachers sensitized to the behaviors exhibited by troubled youth can quickly route them to the mental health resources they need before situations explode into violence. When a student’s home life is torn apart by drug use, emotional abuse, and family dysfunction, we will better serve that student and enhance the safety of our schools if our educators recognize the signs and act on them.

Teachers and students in Howard County do need to be armed with something more than lockdowns and shelter-in-place drills. But classroom guns are not the answer.  As Superintendent Martirano recommends, we need to arm them with the tools of awareness, compassion, intervention and prevention.

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