An Open Letter to Anne Arundel County Residents:
Since the horrific act that took 17 precious lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, many parents and other community members have reached out to ask what we are doing in Anne Arundel County Public Schools to help ensure the safety of our more than 82,000 students and more than 10,000 employees.
First, I want to be up front and tell you that no school or school system can guarantee 100 percent safety of students and staff 100 percent of the time.
That said, I am proud of the lengths to which our school system goes to put in place precautionary measures and increase awareness of surroundings in the more than 13 million square feet of real estate that make up our school system. Safety and security is our No. 1 concern. We know full well that teaching and learning cannot occur without our students and staff safe in the classrooms and in their schools. We also know, and agree, that the horrific tragedy in Florida, Sandy Hook or Columbine could happen in our community as well.
Our staff and students regularly take part in mock emergency drills designed to familiarize them with the safest procedures to employ in an emergency. These drills focus on a variety of topics and, ironically, the most recent drills – conducted over the last several weeks – centered on an armed intruder in a building.
All of our buildings are equipped with audiovisual systems that require visitors to alert a staff member of their presence when they arrive at the exterior door. Visitors should expect to be asked about the purpose of their visit before being granted entry into a school. Once inside, visitors must then provide a government-issued ID card to be scanned through a system that checks the name of a visitor against national and state sex offender databases. Our newer schools are equipped with “double door” entrances, where visitors go through an exterior door and then must go directly to the office or interact with a staff member before being granted access to the full building. This prevents unfettered access to buildings by any visitor. Schools under construction or renovation now will all have this feature.
The check-in procedures at schools inherently make the process of entering a building take a little longer. They are, however, necessary. What is also necessary, though sometimes counterintuitive, is that visitors do not hold the door open for those coming behind them. While we encourage our students, parents, and staff to be nice to each other, making everyone go through the same check-in procedures is imperative.
Our partnership with the Anne Arundel County, City of Annapolis, and Fort Meade police departments is one which has paid tremendous dividends over the years. School Resource Officers provide a regular presence in our buildings, and allow us to access law enforcement resources when necessary far more quickly than would otherwise be the case. The partnerships with all three police departments – and the communication between officers and school staff – have both quickly addressed and prevented issues at all of our schools.
Our schools are all equipped with camera systems accessible not only by our Office of School Security, but by police as well. We also continually re-evaluate access controls such as fencing and keyless entry features.
We also collaborate with police on a variety of professional development for staff and training exercises that both reinforces and brings about improvements to our safety procedures. We take part in discussions with school systems around the nation regarding the prevention of incidences of school violence, and are also in regular contact with the Maryland Center for School Safety.
Our county is also fortunate to have the services of a top-quality mental health practitioners in our Division of Student Support Services and through partnerships with Anne Arundel County police. These professionals provide critical assessment and referral services to students and adults in our county. Additionally, we maintain a Student Safety Hotline which can be accessed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 877-676-9854.
Every school in our county has an emergency plan which has been vetted and approved by our Office of School Security. Those plans provide guidelines for crisis response and prevention.
There are many other aspects of our overall security program that are not seen by the general public but which go a long way in helping make our buildings secure. We are not at liberty to discuss those because, quite honestly, they involve information we don’t want potential perpetrators to know about.
There is not a day that goes by in our school system when the issue of school safety is not discussed. We are constantly looking for ways to bolster the security in our buildings and take advantage of technological advancements to create even safer environments for our students and staff.
For all that technology has to offer, however, our greatest asset is you. It is alert and attentive students, parents, staff members, and others who provide the greatest information we could receive when it comes to issues that may be brewing in our communities or schools. I implore you to continue those conversations at home, in your workplace, and in our schools. We cannot know everything, and we depend on you to partner with us. Put simply, if you see or hear something, say something.
Thank you for everything you do for our school system and for Anne Arundel County.
George Arlotto, Ed.D. Superintendent of Schools
Images courtesy of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools