The auditorium of the Carver Educational Building in Rockville was full the evening of Jan. 16, as parents, educators, government officials and law enforcement representatives came together to participate in a public forum on health and safety in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
The forum was sponsored by the Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA) and moderated by retired Montgomery County Police Officer and school safety and security expert Ed Clark.
Panel members included Captain Luther T. Reynolds, Montgomery County Police Department’s (MCPD) 5th District commander; County Council members Phil Andrews and Craig Rice; Montgomery County Board of Education President Christopher Barclay; and MCPS Director of School Safety and Security Robert “Bob” Hellmuth.
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger was present, as were other local police chiefs, including Gaithersburg’s Mark Sroka.
Manger spoke to the group, beginning with a reference to the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn. “After the shootings, three simultaneous conversations started. They are about gun control, mental health and school safety.”
He referenced what he said were “common sense” legislative changes being advocated by President Obama. “These changes won’t happen unless the American people get behind them,” said Manger. “Lobbyists do not represent the majority [thinking] of our country.”
Council member Rice assured attendees that the County Council and the Board of Education “are committed to working together to making sure our children are safe.” Later in the evening, to loud cheers, Rice pledged to double the number of school resource officers (SROs) in the high schools in the coming year.
MCPD describes the SRO program, formerly called the Educational Facilities Officer Program, as an outreach program sponsored by the Police Department in partnership with MCPS. The six county-funded officers currently in place within MCPS serve as liaisons between the Police Department and the high schools for school – and police-related concerns and incidents. A seventh SRO, located at Gaithersburg High School, is funded by the city of Gaithersburg.
Northwest Cluster Coordinator Beth Kennington attended and spoke at the Safety Forum, representing a dozen schools. In a later interview, she commented on the importance of Rice’s pledge.
“We used to have 32 or 33 SROs about four years ago,” she said. “We had one SRO at every high school. Then came the [economic] crunch. The county … reduced [the program] from 32 to nine — 10 including Gaithersburg. Last year, they went to six.”
Although the school system employs over 200 of its own security officers and many of those are former police officers, Kennington believes there is a difference in perspective depending upon whether one is an employee of the school system or a sworn police officer.
Many parents spoke at the forum. One mother spoke movingly of her son, who had been bullied, and advocated principals taking a tough, no-nonsense approach with bullies from the start. There was discussion about strengthening school relationships to spot problems among students before they can become deeply rooted.
Among the other issues addressed at the meeting were pedestrian and school bus safety, suspended students, safety of school “portables,” metal detectors, statewide bullying policy and safety training for substitute teachers.
Attendees also watched a community video that provides an overview of security protocols and explains the clear language that is used in response to incidents, including “lockdown,” “evacuation” and “shelter in place.” The video is posted on the MCPS website at http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/emergency/preparedness/.