RIVERDALE — In light of school shootings around the nation that are happening more frequently than ever, Prince George’s County Public School’s (PGCPS) is taking extra steps to ensure that schools are safe and that students have the tools to cope with trauma if an incident happened at their school.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence in America, there have been at least 60 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in the U.S. so far in 2018, compared to 65 in all of 2017 and 42 in 2013.
These incidents can happen anywhere from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut and Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
“I think the majority of the students are still finding ways to move on, but we still have kids who are still affected and who still go to counseling, and little things might trigger them as well as our staff, so we’re mindful of that,” said Jake Heibel, principal of Great Mills High School where one student was killed and another injured on March 20.
“I think the real challenge for us to that we need to move on, but we can’t forget what happened so that delicate balance is our priority at this point.”
Because of the profound impact such events can have on students, counseling departments throughout PGCPS are active in ensuring that students understand what is happening and know how to deal with the emotions they may experience because of it.
“We have conversations with students regularly as we think about everything that’s happening within our communities, within our societies and the world,” said Phixavier Holmes, member of the Prince George’s County School Counseling Leadership Team and counselor at William Wirt Middle School.
“It gets them to see the real world connections to some of the things that we’re discussing with them from the social-emotional standpoint within in the school system.”
Counseling departments have conversations with students regularly, individually and within groups to make them aware of the things that are happening as well as seeing and gauge where our students are and the impact that it may have on them.
Counselors may also go into the classroom to give lessons infused with whatever they may be talking about in class, to build connections with students and gain insight into how they may be feeling.
“Students may or may not want to share, but we gain more insight into how they’re thinking and what they’re doing and how they’re processing everything. It gives them an opportunity to become a leader within their school because they may have had a great idea or on their own, they’re able to see something that we as the adults may not be able to,” Holmes said.
According to Heibel, counseling services helped in dealing with the aftermath of last school years shooting. The school added a fifth additional counselor this year and an Office of Community Resources as well as put some mental health services in place.
“Following the incident last March, it really impacted a lot of kids in a variety of ways, and I think some of the things we did, from the counseling services and the therapy dogs, I think helped,” he said. “But I think the timing is really everything for us.
“We got to the end of the year, it was the last couple of months, and then summer kind of heals a little bit.”
Often, teachers become the first point of contact when recognizing when a student is suffering from some type of trauma. The relationships they build with students on a day-to-day basis allow them to notice a change in behavior.
According to Holmes, William Wirt and the surrounding district have-a-teacher referral process where teachers can learn to recognize these signs and bring a counselor in for more assistance.
Justin McClain, a theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School, says that although he is confident that the school is well equipped with security measures, his students are more sensitive to the need for these measures and aware of how possible these events are.
There is a desire to address how one would respond at the moment, something that at McNamara has discussed school-wide regarding different safety training scenarios conducted last year.
“I would say that my students are more interested in the reality of the need for school safety,” McClain said. “My students are more aware of the need for school safety and the need to address this broader dilemma in society.”
Although it is impossible to be sure where the next event will take place, the state and the county are ensuring that schools are prepared.
The Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018 went into effect in June. With more funding and staffing, the law requires the Center for School Safety to work with school systems to provide a comprehensive approach to school safety that includes training requirements, behavioral assessments and a mental health and school safety coordinator positions for each school system.
“Having worked with all 24 public school districts, private schools and non-public schools, everyone connected to school safety and security are even more committed to make sure we have support for all of our schools in Maryland so that all of our students can get a great education and now we can be better prepared for a multitude of emergencies,” said Executive Director of the Maryland Department of School Safety Ed Clark.
PGCPS is continuing to enforce its current security measures as well as finding ways to implement more.
“There is a technology-based school security management system in all of our schools,” said PGCPS Public Information Officer John White.
“We also have a process by which visitors enter the building after buzzing in so that office staff can see them and greet them before they enter the school building, direct them to the office where they can have their identification scanned and backgrounds checked, and we have school security officers who are county police officers in all of our high schools and some of our middle schools.”
Also, there is security staff who work for the school system operating in the schools to complement the school resource officer. Every school has an emergency plan and drill to know how to respond in an emergency, and the school system uses a comprehensive plan and training to know what to do in an emergency.
Tulip Grove Elementary School, which opened this year, has a unique security system where they can lock the classrooms in case there is an intruder in the building the doors can be locked from the inside.
“We think we have a safe and secure environment in all of our schools, but we will continue to learn and improve, and technology plays a role in that,” White said.
“Our coordination with law enforcement plays a role in that. The state is going to issue school security grants this year, and we will apply.”
No matter what grants or security measures are in place, the students are ultimately affected by these events and the priority is to make sure that they are safe in a physical and emotional sense.
“Overall, recognizing trauma is not always national,” Holmes said. “On an individual basis, it can have the same level of impact.”