NEWARK – School safety remains at the top of the priority list for the Worcester County Board of Education as the start of the school year nears.
Educators joined members of the law enforcement community last week for the school system’s sixth annual safety conference. Superintendent Lou Taylor and Chief Safety Officer Steve Price reviewed the conference and the school system’s other efforts to improve safety in an interview this week.
“Safety is at the top of the list that we address,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said. “It will remain that way.”
At last week’s conference, school administrators, county leaders, school board members and law enforcement representatives heard from speakers George Roberts, principal of Perry Hall High School when a school shooting occurred there, and FBI Special Agent Steven Shepherd. Price said Roberts talked about how, as the school’s leader, he dealt with the Perry Hall shooting and its aftermath, while Shepherd discussed the indicators that might point to an individual being a threat to school safety.
During the conference’s afternoon session, representatives from the Worcester County Health Department talked about the various mental health services available to local students.
“That process was to address mental health issues, which across the country has become more of a point of emphasis for school safety,” Price said.
While there are no major changes planned for the coming school year in regard to school safety, Price said the Maryland Safe to Learn Act had brought about some adjustments locally, including his own designation as safety officer.
“In that act there’s a number of mandates that are required of local school districts, one being that we must provide a mental health coordinator,” Price said. “We have done that through our school system. It is also required that there be an individual in the school system named as chief safety officer.”
He said the Safe to Learn Act also addressed adequate law enforcement coverage at schools. He pointed out that Worcester County was fortunate to have a deputy at each of its schools.
“We’re one of the few counties that are afforded that opportunity to have a police officer in each of our schools,” he said. “It’s not common practice across Maryland.”
Price said there was funding tied to the new legislation that the county would be pursuing in its efforts to further enhance safety initiatives.
“They are just starting to release the details about how you go about applying for those monies,” Price said.
He said the school system was working on proposals and hoped to receive some funding to help with community awareness initiatives in particular.
Carrie Sterrs, the school system’s coordinator of public relations and special programs, said officials had been working on a parent education campaign that could tie into the grant process.
“For the first time this year we’re actually going to be giving each family an emergency guide that gives them what they should be expecting from the school system and their school in certain types of emergencies as well as what we would expect from them and how they can best approach different scenarios of that nature,” Sterrs said.
Taylor stressed the safety of students and staff was the primary concern for the school system. He said the design of the new Showell Elementary School—for which construction is set to begin in October—proved that. Taylor said the school had been designed with a focus on safety.
“For example, we’ve eliminated 39 exterior doors to that building in large part due to safety…,” Taylor said. “There’s a number of things…10 years ago we didn’t do, that now we do. We didn’t worry about exterior doors. As many exterior doors as we could put on a classroom we put on, for access to leave the school in case of a fire. The negative side is somebody can enter those doors.”
He added that each classroom door at the new school would be lockable. In addition, the entrance to the building has been designed to increase safety.
“When you enter Showell you’re going to enter a vestibule that will feed right into the main office which will prevent folks from just randomly walking through the school,” Taylor said.
In contrast, at the county’s other schools, particularly those built in the 1970s, visitors enter and have access to multiple hallways and classrooms before they reach the main office of the building. While the installation of cameras at schools with those older designs helps with security, Taylor said the entrance at Showell would be truly secure.
“Showell will be the first school that will be above and beyond when it comes to making sure we have it safe for our kids,” Taylor said.
He said school system officials were committed to ensuring the safety of all of the county’s students and continued to review ways to enhance security at schools. Donations such as those from Hardwire—the Pocomoke company has donated shields not only to schools in Pocomoke but across the county—help with the mission. Taylor also credited the cooperative efforts of school system leaders, school board members and the Worcester County Commissioners.
“The reason we’re able to get a lot of things done is because all three units are working very closely in partnership, doing what’s best for kids,” Taylor said.