Dozens of concerned parents packed the Montgomery County Public Schools headquarters in Rockville Wednesday night to hear police, County Council members and school officials pledge efforts to make schools safer, including increasing police presence.
County Councilman Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, a vocal advocate of school resource officers stationed in schools, told the meeting, "We are going to double the number of school resource officers from 6 to 12."
The school resource officer, or SRO, program historically has stationed police officers in schools as an added safety boost. In recent years budget cuts have limited the SRO program to one officer per police district, in addition to one Gaithersburg City SRO. Now county leadership’s priorities may be aligned to give the program a boost.
“We do need to increase the number of SROs here and around the country,” said Police Chief Tom Manger in Wednesday’s opening remarks. “I will tell you there was a time a few years ago when we had an SRO in everyone of our high schools. It takes a special person to be effective working with students every day. These men would put themselves between a bad guy and your child and would do it in a heartbeat and I'm very proud of them."
According to Manger, Montgomery County Public School Superintendent Joshua Starr and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) have recently voiced support for the program.
Talk of expanding the SRO program came with applause from community residents attending the meeting, but not everyone felt that armed police officers in schools were the answer to public school safety concerns.
“I think SROs play an important role in supporting high schools in particular, but it’s a short-term response,” said Takoma Park resident Ina Schonberg. “It brought up the broader issues of too many guns in society and not enough attention and support to youth with mental issues or other challenges.”
Since the December shooting that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, national conversation has focused on gun control. A website called StopTheShootings.org counts 387 school shootings, fatal and nonfatal, since 1992. The National School Safety Center partially contributed to the database of shootings. President Obama yesterday unveiled a sweeping gun control proposal as well as a 23 gun control executive actions.
Schonberg, who said she grew up in Newtown, CT, and attended Sandy Hook Elementary as a child, spoke against having any guns in schools, even in the holster of a police officer.
“The National PTA position on whether there should be guns in schools is ‘No.’ – I personally agree with that," she told the discussion panel Wednesday night.
In addition to SROs, parents brought up concerns including bullying, emergency response training for teachers, students and staff, and physical security barriers for schools, including fences around portables, locked doors and metal detectors. According to officials on the panel, school security needs to be an ongoing discussion, and Wednesday’s meeting was the start.
Visit the Montgomery County Public Schools website here to see what security measures the county already has in place.
"Security is a balance,” said Richard Hellmuth, director of school safety and security at MCPS. “We don't want to turn our schools into a fortress. At a [PTA] meeting recently, half the parents wanted the school completely locked down, the other half didn't. We have to talk about what does fit this community, what does fit MCPS."
The County Council and the school board have recently begun efforts to accelerate school security upgrades after parents began raising concerns about the security of several elementary schools across the county.
Family members of students at Bradley Hills Elementary in Bethesda have written to county leaders asking for security improvements at the elementary school’s temporary location. Parents at Potomac Elementary School have also expressed concern at what they see as a lack of safety coverage for the school’s portable classroom buildings.
The county school board voted last week to speed up spending to increase security at Montgomery County elementary schools, unanimously voting to request an additional $364,000 to place video intercom systems at the entrance of every county elementary school. If the Montgomery County Council approves the request, all 132 elementary campuses could receive the upgrade by July, the Washington Examiner reported.
This action has accelerated a six-year plan to boost school security Hellmuth said the county already had in place. Revisiting security measures at the county’s portables is next on the county’s list, but it’s a unique situation that would require individual school solutions.
“We have finite resources, we're never going to have unlimited resources,” said Luther Reynolds, 5th District commander for Montgomery County Police in Germantown. “Rather than talk about how do we respond to the [big event], I think we need to be focused on day-to-day activities."
How would new security measures best be implemented in Montgomery County Public Schools? For talking points from Wednesday’s meeting and to add to the discussion, click here.