Maryland school systems prepared for violence, disasters

The  threat of a shooting was a hoax, but Carroll County Public School leaders took no chances.

For five hours on March 21, students remained on lockdown at South Carroll High School, while police and education officials secured the area.

At 7 p.m. the school was declared clear and safe. Buses arrived to take students home.

The incident at South Carroll is not unusual. In the last few months, many educational institutions have been going into lockdown mode.

Check out latest on the South Carroll lockdown here.

On March 31, Stevenson University put its campus in lockdown mode after initial reports of “an active shooter.” In reality, the “shooter” ended up being two men hunting with a pellet gun.

Last week, The KIPP Academy in Baltimore City was placed on lockdown after students thought they saw a man with a gun coming into the school.

It turned out to be a tripod. Check out the story here.

For students, the idea of a lockdown isn’t new, it’s now a critical part of their safety training, something brought to light Wednesday when 22 people were stabbed inside a Pittsburgh-area high school.

In the last decade, public school systems across the state have moved beyond the standard fire drill to different exercises that handle everything from active shooter to nuclear bomb scenarios.

“We are preparing them for what the world is today,” said Bob Benedett,Coordinator of Safety and Security for Harford County Public Schools. “You have to be ready for any situation.”

Three years ago, Harford schools safety officials got rid of the term “fire drill” and implemented evacuation drills instead.

That’s in addition to the regular lockdown drills and disaster drills students practice throughout the year.

“At the beginning of every school year, schools are required to perform an assessment to see what their safety needs might be,” he said. “Each facility is different- one plan doesn’t work for all.”

Benedett said Harford County leaders started changing safety plans 15 years ago after two teenagers killed a dozen students at Columbine High School in Colorado.

“We realized fire drills weren’t enough,” Benedett said. “It’s important to keep on top of the changes, you never know what’s going to happen, especially in a school.”

Dale Rauenzahn, executive director of public safety for  Baltimore County Public Schools, said during the Columbia Mall shootings  earlier this year, he received reports that students were more prepared than their parents.

“Parents were relying on their children on what to do,” he said. “I am proud to hear that students took what they practiced and implemented it- they were prepared for the real thing.”

In Baltimore County, students practice different levels of emergency situations.

If a facility is placed on lockdown mode, it means students are sheltering in place. If a facility is on “alert status,” doors are locked, but the school day continues as normal.

“There are fundamental differences with the two,”  Rauenzahn said. “Usually when an alert status is issued, it has to do with something police are doing within the area of the school.”

In Baltimore County, a school is more likely to go onto an alert status. Lockdowns have rarely occurred he said.

A few years ago, Baltimore County adopted a new emergency practice method. During the school year, each school is sent a series of danger scenarios.

“It could be anything from a spill to an active shooter situation,” Rauenzahn said. “The school doesn’t know what it is until the envelope it opened.”

Once the envelope it opened, school leaders have to practice the scenario as if it were happening. Once the drill is over, officials debrief and discuss how they handled the situation.

Michael Dorn, executive director of the campus safety nonprofit Safe Haven, said practicing emergency scenarios gives teachers a chance to think on their own.

He said it’s important for teachers to be trained to think on their own when it comes to getting through an emergency situation.

“Many times if you’re waiting to be told what to do, you’re not going to survive,” Dorn said. “Our research has found that if you can make your own decisions through practice, your chances of survival increase dramatically.”

Larry Fairies, safety director, for Carroll County Public Schools, said the changes his school made in the last 10 years prepared South Carroll students well when it went into actual lockdown mode.

“They knew what to do,” he said. “That’s the best thing you can ask for if it had been a real shooter situation.”