School Districts Plan for the Unthinkable

By Jack Toomey

School security MCPS

Every year there are at least 20 mass shootings in the United States where four or more people are killed. Unfortunately, many of these events happen in school buildings. As a result, school districts have developed their own security procedures, which may be different from those of neighboring school districts.

Montgomery County Public Schools, with 205 schools and approximately 161,000 students, uses what is basically a shelter-in-place plan. Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS), with 62 schools and approximately 42,000 students, uses the Avoid, Deny, Defend™ (ADD) method.

The first mass school shooting in the modern era that drew national attention was at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Two disturbed boys murdered 12 students and a teacher. At that time, the accepted police policy was to surround the building with officers and wait for specialized units equipped with heavy weapons. It was discovered that this policy cost the lives of innocent victims because there was no armed person in the school to confront the gunmen. Retired Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis spoke recently about lessons learned during an evening presentation at Catoctin High School, hosted by FCPS and The Maryland Center for School Safety.

This police policy had been in place for some time. As a police officer, the writer of this article was present at two incidents during the ‘80s where police commanders decided that patrol officers should not enter the building while the gunman was roaming the building and firing shots. The first incident was at the IBM building in Bethesda where a former employee drove his car through the front door of the building and then got out and began roaming the corridors. The former employee eventually shot and killed three people and was arrested when SWAT team members entered the building. The other was at a bank in Bethesda where a disgruntled employee walked around shooting his fellow employees.

Photos | MCPS Robert Hellmuth, director of MCPS School Safety and Security, is responsible for the safety of students in all 205 MCPS schools.

Photos |MCPS
Robert Hellmuth, director of MCPS School Safety and Security, is responsible for the safety of students in all 205 MCPS schools.

School systems have made decisions on how best to protect their students and staff. In most cases, they have partnered with their local police department to create the most effective plan.

Frederick County, Maryland, uses the Avoid, Deny, Defend™ (ADD) method. Developed at Texas State University, this program has been used to train police officers across the nation. The ADD program has proven more effective than sheltering in place or taking cover and hoping for the best in school and commercial incidents.

“Avoid” means be aware of your surroundings, have an exit plan, and get away from the threat as soon and fast as possible. Obviously, in a public school, students hear rumors and loud sounds every day that could be construed as emergencies. The odds of a kid being caught in a life-or-death situation in a school are extremely low. However, survivors at Parkland High School, Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech all said that they thought it would never happen to them.

“Deny” teaches students and staff to put a barrier such as a wall or a door between themselves and the gunman. In addition to a physical barrier, students and staff should turn off all the lights and remain completely silent if they are trapped in a situation where there is no escape.

Photo | MCPS Reconsidering Response to Fire Alarms After the shootings in Parkland where smoke from the AR-15 rifle set off the school’s fire alarm and kids pouring into the hallways were killed by the boy with the gun, the use of the fire alarm inside schools is being reconsidered.  For 60 years, students have become accustomed to fire alarms going off at least once a month, sometimes more for drills and malfunctions. They straggle out of the school, stop to talk to friends and treat the drills as a social hour.  Recently, the Montgomery County Fire Department responded to Quince Orchard High School for the report of smoke in the auditorium. Students were evacuated from the building and spent an hour outside. School administrators and police admit that this would be an opportune time for a shooter.

Photo | MCPS

Reconsidering Response to Fire Alarms

After the shootings in Parkland where smoke from the AR-15 rifle set off the school’s fire alarm and kids pouring into the hallways were killed by the boy with the gun, the use of the fire alarm inside schools is being reconsidered.
For 60 years, students have become accustomed to fire alarms going off at least once a month, sometimes more for drills and malfunctions. They straggle out of the school, stop to talk to friends and treat the drills as a social hour.
Recently, the Montgomery County Fire Department responded to Quince Orchard High School for the report of smoke in the auditorium. Students were evacuated from the building and spent an hour outside. School administrators and police admit that this would be an opportune time for a shooter.

If all else fails, “Defend” kicks into play. Students and staff are taught that they may have to fight the attacker. There is safety in numbers. Someone needs to try to take the weapon away from the shooter. Remember that this is not a fair fight. Lives are on the line.

When the student or staff member is in a safe area, they are told to call 9-1-1. Some jurisdictions are developing a system where 9-1-1 can be accessed by text in the event of an emergency.

Frederick County, Maryland, began accepting 9-1-1 texts from Verizon customers in 2013 and from all major carriers in 2015. In March 2018, the state entered into a contract with TeleCommunications Systems, Inc. that will enable emergency responders in any Maryland jurisdiction that opts in to receive 9-1-1 texts beginning this month. According to Public Information Office Lucille Baur, Montgomery County is working to offer a text-to-9-1-1 feature, but it is not yet available.

Bill Ferretti, MCPD director of 9-1-1 ECC, said that Montgomery County “has undertaken a procurement action to acquire a Next Generation 9-1-1 Service. The county has already installed a Next Generation 9-1-1 Phone System, which is Text-to-9-1-1 capable. Once a contract is placed with a Next Generation 9-1-1 Service provider, the County will begin to add features as they become available within that service, one of which will be Text-to-9-1-1.” He added that “Text-to-9-1-1, like any new service, will take time to implement fully. There are several issues including call-taker training, equipment installation, and cell carrier coordination. Even once available, 9-1-1 professionals recommend you only use Text-to-9-1-1 if you can’t call.”

Montgomery County does not use ADD. The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) policy is basically a Shelter-in-Place plan. There are two levels. The first is when the school is placed in a “lockdown” order and instruction continues but no students are allowed to leave their classrooms. The second level, more serious, is where students and teachers lock the doors to the classroom and find the most secure place to hide. Recently, Captain David Anderson, then the commander of the Fifth District but promoted to assistant chief, gave a presentation to the Poolesville PTSA. He pointed out that in all of the school shootings since Columbine, only twice has the shooter breached a locked classroom door.

Montgomery County is presently installing a magnetic lock on all classroom doors in the county. This device is operated by someone in authority; simply tearing off a magnetic strip from the inside of the door automatically locks the door. Captain Anderson observed that in a stressful situation, even the simplest act like inserting a key in a door can be very difficult and valuable time may be lost.

The Courier spoke to a Montgomery county high school teacher with over 20 years’ experience. He emphasized the importance of drills. His high school recently had a lockdown drill while classes were changing, which is probably the most chaotic time of the school day. His duty was to grab as many students as he could as they passed by his classroom and then direct them to a place of concealment. He said that if there was ever a shooter at his school, all of these drills could be forgotten in the panic of the moment.

Robert Hellmuth is the director of MCPS School Safety and Security. A retired MCPD police officer, Hellmuth is responsible for the safety of the students in all 205 MCPS schools. Hellmuth said that “things are changing” in the thinking and design of school security plans. His security team and the police department recently did some drills in selected high schools at a time when most of the student body was in the hallways. The drills were filmed and then later studied. He said that he was amazed to see that at any given spot in the school, students filled the hallways; after the drills started, not a soul was in the hallway 20 seconds later. Hellmuth said that students will soon be taught not to be passive in case of a real emergency. They should run, escape or do something.

Hellmuth acknowledged that the revised plans will have to be age appropriate. Elementary school students will have to have a simpler plan than high school students. MCPS is trying to empower teachers to make decisions. They may decide that the best course of action is to lock the doors and hide, while at a different time they might decide to run with the class to the nearest exit.

In June there will be a meeting of school safety directors, police tactical officers, school officials and school resource officers in Annapolis. The goal will be to get a broader idea of what other school districts are doing and what might be the best practice.

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