Local school officials say there is much to be done to insure greater school safety in the county.
Officials with Montgomery County Public Schools recently published an interim report on school safety and security in its 25 high schools. Superintendent Jack Smith commissioned this report last spring after an alleged rape case — which prosecutors later dropped — involving Rockville High School students in aschool bathroom garnered national attention.
The MCPS Department of School Safety and Security collaborated with school administrators and the Office School Support and Improvement along with two outside consulting experts to develop this report.
The study’s 30 recommendations are divided into seven key priority areas, which include systemwide prevention and early intervention programs and collaboration with law enforcement and other partner agencies. The recommendations themselves range from more intensive screening for hiring security personnel, to regular staff meetings on monitoring and responding to critical incidents.
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The priority area with the most recommendations — ten — is the “effective allocation, utilization, management and training of school security personnel and other staff.” The report suggests hiring more female and bilingual recruits, as well as staff with experience in social media, cyberbullying and gangs. Specific recommendations include creating a “basic” training program for new MCPS security staff hires and in-service training throughout the year, as well as “enhanced security training” for principals, administrators and other school staff.
Last school year, police arrested Richard Montgomery High School security team leader Mark Yantsos for inappropriate sexual contact with a 17-year-old student.
Another recommendation in the report is for students and staff to take yearly surveys about school climate. The students should contribute in designing the surveys.
Gillian Huebner, a child protection professional, is heartened that the report takes the student perspective into account.
“I think that the first thing [in the report] that stands out to me is that they are interested in engaging input from students,” said Huebner, the chair of the newly formed School Climate and Safety subcommittee of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. “I would say that that’s a real priority, because I think it’s difficult to address these things without having very careful and considered opportunities for youth to identify for themselves what their security concerns are and what they would like to see the schools do to make them feel safer.”
However, she hopes the final report will also focus on the parent perspective.
“I think parents are an important part of the solution and they’re sort of missing from the report,” Huebner said. “So, I’m interested to see if there are any ways we can work more closely with the school on these issues…Sometimes parents are aware of school safety issues that may not be known to the schools. The schools may be aware of school safety issues that the parents aren’t aware of. I think that communication between the two is really critical in making sure that children are protected and feel safe.”
Another suggestion in the report is for MCPS to establish a strategy for the “most-effective use of security cameras and other technology in schools.”
“We have already taken several steps to enhance security including facilities and technology upgrades at schools (cameras, communications, lighting, access control systems, barriers, etc) as well as other individualized school practices,” Gboyinde Onijala, a spokesperson for MCPS, wrote in an email.
Other recommendations focus on restricting access to isolated areas of schools and ensuring that all visitors go through the main entrance.
Also, school staff should supervise hallways and the areas around bathrooms — such as where the alleged rape took place — during the beginning and end of the school day, lunch and between classes.
Furthermore, MCPS should compile an inventory of and then assess all “school-sponsored prevention and early intervention programs” regarding harassment, bullying and intimidation at the high schools, and then develop “a systemwide approach to implement the most effective programs.”
Some members of the school community would like the final report to include measures that will ensure all students feel not just physically safe at school, but also emotionally secure.
“I appreciate as a parent, we chose to live in Montgomery County because there’s always been an explicit focus and emphasis on trying to create and support equitable learning environments for all students,” said Jamie Koppel, a member of the School Climate and Safety subcommittee and who focuses on education advocacy and school policy in her professional life. “But what I see reflected in the recommendations is not the work related to actually getting to equity. Not the work related to addressing incidents of hate that have been on a significant rise in the last year or so. What I see are ways to secure to physical safety and security, which are important, but not inclusive of that other piece of all of this.”
Instances of hate-related vandalism last school year included swastikas marked in elementary school bathrooms and on a football field and “kill kill kill blacks” written on a bathroom wall in an elementary school. These incidents prompted Smith to release a statement saying MCPS “will not tolerate hate-based speech or behavior.”
“There’s a whole other host of incidents that have been happening in our schools for a long time, but that have really ramped up since last year’s election related to hate and the use of hate speech,” Koppel said “…I think that Montgomery County has a real opportunity to more closely marry conversations around physical safety and security with the beautifully aspirational language they include in the report about creating positive school culture and climate that I don’t see reflected in the initial recommendations.”
The School Climate and Safety subcommittee plans to develop a response to the report and consult MCPS with their conclusions.
“This area is a really diverse school system that I think in generally it’s working pretty well,” Huebner said. “…I think school systems in general have a lot to learn about violence prevention and climate, and I think MCPS is really open to figuring out how to do more and better in this space.”
Onijala said that following the review of the other schools this year, “some or all of these findings will be adapted to the middle- and elementary-school levels in summer and fall 2017.”