Schools Look to Best Practices — and Lawmakers — to Ensure Students' Safety

Written by Rachel Kohn on . Posted in Community News

On Feb. 21, approximately 1,000 high school students left their desks behind in classrooms across Montgomery County (MoCo) to converge upon the nation’s capital, according to reports from Montgomery County officials. Teens from Richard Montgomery, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Blair, Albert Einstein, Northwood, and Wootton High Schools marched to the closest metro station or hitched a ride with friends to join the demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol and the White House supporting legslative action that could help prevent school shootings like the one on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida.

And MoCo students are not alone: Fox5DC reported around 100 students at McClean High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, staged a walkout onto the school's football field March 1. On March 6, Baltimore public school students marched on City Hall and staged a 17 minute “lie-in” or honor the Florida victims, according to multiple news outlets.

As both teens and adults continue to discuss the politics of gun control, school administrators and law enforcement continue to work together to maintain effective security procedures at local public and private schools.

In Montgomery County, for example, “there is a school resource officer, a police officer, or a sheriff’s deputy at every [public] high school,” said Sheriff Darren Popkin. In addition to his or her role at a high school, a school resource officer also works with the principals at the “feeder schools” and is involved with their security processes, Popkin said. School security officers, who are not members of the police department but are hired through Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), provide another layer of security at public schools.

The Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) has experienced a significant increase in the number of threats directed at schools throughout the county, according to a March 4 statement from MCPD. “These threats, directed toward other students and/or the school community, have come in the form of phone calls, conversations, writings, emails, and social media,” the statement said. “Many of the people making these threats have motives that range from wanting to disrupt school activities to making the threat as a prank ... In two recent Montgomery County cases, those making the threats have been criminally charged.”

“If you or your child become aware of a threat or other suspicious activity that is concerning, please call police,” the statement continued, urging people to contact the authorities rather than sharing concerning posts found on social media. “Remind your child that any threat made will be investigated, even if the child’s intention is to be humorous.”

In contrast to Montgomery County, there have been “a few threats associated with schools in DC since the Florida incident” but the police have not observed an increase and do not consider these threats “a result from the Florida incident,” said Public Affairs Specialist Karimah Bilal, a member of the Office of Communications at the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. She also said DC public, charter, and private schools regulate their own security policies and would need to be contacted individually for further information.

For safety reasons, administrators at Jewish private schools in Northern Virginia and Maryland were unwilling to make the specific details of their security measures and procedures public, but they described strong partnerships with local police departments, Jewish institutions (the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington [JCRC], the Secure Community Network, and the Baltimore Jewish Council, to name a few), and national organizations like the Anti-Defamation League in developing their practices and ensuring their students’ safety.

How Gesher Jewish Day School handled its bomb-threat experience last year likely contributes to parents’ confidence in the school’s emergency procedures during periods like these, said Head of School Dan Finkel.

Staff at the Fairfax, Virginia, school, which runs through eighth grade, address the fears around school shootings with younger students if they are discussing it among themselves and appear stressed, said Finkel. The kids in grades six through eight were convened for a conversation where “they could process emotions and [we could] also help them remember the ways in which we keep them safe at school.”

Conversations at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) in Rockville, Maryland, have centered around “the students desire to memorialize what happened in Parkland and how potentially to respond,” said Head of School Rabbi Mitch Malkus. Student leaders have met with the administration to coordinate an unspecified future event or events related to the shooting, he said; anyone who wants to participate in something not coordinated through the school — like the March 14 National School Walkout — can get an excused absence as long as they have a note indicating parental permission.

"As you can imagine, there are differences of opinion among the students about what that walkout means," said Rabbi Malkus. "A lot of gun control groups have said it's for gun control, and there are other students who would like to advocate and walk out but maybe are in favor of other solutions."

"One of the things we've tried to do to help the students with this — because the student body is not monolithic — is to figure out ways that anybody who wants to participate can and it can be inclusive in demanding safe schools," he said. "But it's more about this is what the students want to do and figuring out ways to enable them to have their voices heard as long as we can make sure that they're safe."

Rabbi Malkus, Dan Finkel, and Sheriff Popkin each said they are against the idea of having armed teachers in the classroom.

"The last thing we want to do is add firearms into schools," Sheriff Popkin said. All three expressed concern about putting more on teachers' already full plates by requiring firearms training; and Sheriff Popkin said that even a teacher's former military, law enforcement, or private gun training does not sufficiently mitigate the risks of a firearm in a classroom.

Looking beyond the role of internal policies, local administrators are also entering the political discussion on gun control. The heads of school at Kreiger Schechter Day School (KSDS) and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School will be two of at least 75 signatories — all administrators from public and private schools in the Baltimore area — calling for gun-law reform in an ad in this Sunday’s issue of the Baltimore Sun.

Additionally, as of March 7, 140 administrators and educators at U.S. Jewish day schools from across the denominational spectrum have signed a letter put forth by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. The letter calls for "our President and legislative leaders, at both the federal and state levels of government, and our fellow citizens to work together now to enact common sense legislation that addresses all factors contributing to a safe and secure educational community, including restrictions and safeguards related to guns. We recognize that there is no perfect solution to the plague of school violence that has so tragically become the 'new normal.' But that is no excuse not to act." Signatories include administrators and staff from Beth Tfiloh, KSDS, and Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore; JDS and Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville; and Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital (MILTON) in DC.

When contacted for this article, administrators at MILTON and Berman declined to comment, citing school policy regarding discussion of security protocols. In a Feb. 22 email to Berman parents, however, Head of School Dr. Joshua Levisohn and Security Committee Chair Brian Foont acknowledged parents’ concerns in the wake of the Parkland shooting and said the school has “plans and procedures to try to prevent or mitigate many different types of security threats ... developed in consultation with and based on materials provided by various law enforcement authorities and other experts.”

On Feb. 23, Berman conducted its twice-annual lockdown drill “in order to prepare the students for what would take place if, G-d forbid, an intruder were to enter our building,” Levisohn wrote in an email to parents at 1:04 p.m. “Our teachers explained to the students that, just as we practice staying safe in the event of a fire, we also need to practice how to stay safe in the very unlikely event that there’s an unwanted stranger in the building.”

While the parents did not receive advance notice of the drill, this writer’s son, a first-grader at Berman, confirmed Levisohn’s description of how students were prepped for the drill by their teachers and said the drill was “not scary.”

“If you have any concerns about your child’s reaction, please let one of the principals or counselors know so that we can work with you to help your child,” wrote Levisohn. “The likelihood of a real lockdown is very, very small but it’s critical to be ready just in case.” 

By Rachel Kohn

 Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.