SNOW HILL — A list of school safety improvements that the Worcester County Board of Education has been advocating for months was partially approved this week by the County Commission, but a few commissioners revealed a fear that county schools might soon resemble prisons.
The safety project list, which has received a lot of attention since revealed by the school board this winter, includes an electronic entry system for all 14 county public schools, nine card-swiping electronic entry systems, eight security cameras, six front-entrance vehicle barriers, 15 standardized visitor identification systems and window blinds and tinting for four schools. The projects represent a total estimated cost of $218,425.
Of the six-item safety list offered by the Board of Education, the commissioners approved four projects with a total cost of about $173,000. The commissioners voted not to fund front-entrance vehicle barriers or window blinds and tinting in the initial batch of funding.
The $173,000 will come from reserves in the current budget as opposed to being funded from next year’s FY2014 budget. However, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dr. Jerry Wilson told the commission that the county should be reimbursed roughly 50 percent of that money from the state.
That 50 percent is not a hard figure, Wilson admitted, and the actual amount Annapolis will contribute to Worcester won’t be known until the final bills are passed, probably sometime this spring. But 50 percent is the expectation, with $25 million total planned for all counties in Maryland. Worcester could receive up to $217,000 of that bulk sum.
“The state, independently, wants to do something to enhance safety and security in schools,” said Wilson. “Therefore, they allocated the $25 million. I cannot say anything more about the state’s process than I have already. However, I believe in this environment that the state will find funds.”
Wilson clarified that he would be making the same requests for school safety improvements this week if no state funding was available, since the Board of Education’s Safety Committee viewed them as vital. But he added that there is a “high degree of probability” that county funding will see a 50-percent reimbursement from the state.
In regards to the actual safety improvements, there was some unease among commissioners. With all of the new security improvements being suggested, Commissioner Louise Gulyas said that she has received a lot of phone calls from parents worried about escalation. Besides building changes, she added that many parents are uncomfortable with another safety consideration the commission is weighing this year: the addition of armed School Resource Officers (SRO) to all school facilities in Worcester.
“They really think that it’s a knee-jerk reaction and that we should wait a year, step back, take a deep breath and look at this again,” Gulyas said, characterizing the calls she has received. “I have to tell you I am a real advocate of education and it kind of scares me that all of this is going on and it’s like we’re raising our children in a prison. Next you’ll want fencing and razor wire around the schools.”
Commissioner Jim Bunting admitted that he’s “had the same calls” from parents who are concerned about the perceived lockdown of schools and armed SROs stationed in all buildings, even if those officers would serve under the supervision of the Sheriff’s Department. While the commission won’t make a decision on whether to fund the SROs until they complete their budget this June, the list of requests the board presented this week does represent a major change to the status quo.
Commission President Bud Church added that he’s gotten a few similar calls and does expect some pushback from some concerned members of the community. However, he stated a need for increased school security is just a sad reality of the times.
“I think there are going to be at least a few parents there opposing some of the measures that we’re doing. I also do believe that we’re in a different society than you and I grew up in,” he told Wilson. “And I believe that society is changing every day, unfortunately, so I think we need to take some protective action.”
Wilson reminded the commission that the Board of Education’s Safety Committee did have the full support of local law-enforcement in developing the list of capital security improvements.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw wasn’t sure if the visitor identification system was a worthy investment. The system would scan a school visitor’s information and check a database to see if any red flags emerged, such as a status as a sex offender.
Being scanned relies on the visitor checking into the office, however, and Lockfaw pointed out that only law-abiding people would do so. Those with ill-intent might just walk past the office unless there was someone at the entrance.
“What happened in Connecticut was not a law-abiding person,” he said, referring to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Even with the questions, the commissioners voted 6 to 1, with Gulyas opposed, to approve the approximately $173,000 for security cameras, electronic entry, card-swiping, and visitor identification systems, which should be in place next September.