The recent school shootings in Colorado and Georgia may have happened a long way from Montgomery County, but the reverberations are being felt close to home.
Last week, at a Bethesda gathering organized by the county's Department of Health and Human Services, a group of county educators, law enforcement officials, social service counselors, legislators, students, parents and other members of the community met to talk about safety. They hope the session will mark the start of an ongoing dialogue that will search for ways to combat violence in school and in society.
County officials also sought to assure parents that they are doing all they can to prevent such a tragedy from happening close to home and to be able to deal with a similar situation effectively if one should occur.
"No one looks at an incident like Columbine . . . as happening in Montgomery County," said Michael J. Gough, the school system's director of security. "[But] if you look at the schools where those incidents happened, you could identify any single school in Montgomery County--in terms of demographics, size, location--with one of the schools where those incidents happened."
Officials said that this summer they will reevaluate the county's crisis response plans to improve police tactics and evacuations during school emergencies. "We believe, we fully believe and we strongly believe that we will be able to manage an incident of that magnitude, such as happened in Colorado, and that we would be very successful in managing that incident," said Fire and Rescue Chief Brian Geraci.
The conversation, however, focused more on what parents and officials can do to prevent such tragedies from happening in the first place.
They discussed a variety of options, everything from the need for more money for after-school programs and guidance counselors to the need for parents to play bigger roles in their children's lives.
"I believe that our schools are incredibly safe, but I worry a great deal about copycats," said Board of Education member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). She said she has received numerous questions from parents recently about metal detectors and dress codes and whether backpacks should be banned.
O'Neill said she believes the answer lies in smaller classes, where staff can get to know students better. "I think we have to explore all avenues and discuss things openly here in our community."
"These incidents are a signal to us about what happens to alienated youngsters these days," said Steven G. Seleznow, the associate superintendent for administration. "We can call them random acts of violence, but we can also try to see them as a signal to us in this society and culture about what's happening on the fringes."
The one thing that everyone agreed upon, it seemed, was that more needs to be done to lessen the sense of alienation felt by many young people and to look for ways to make them feel more connected at school, at home and in general.
Paul Schwiesow, a 17-year-old junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, pointed out that students spend at least seven hours a day at school, more time in some cases than they spend with parents at home. "So it's extremely important to have teachers who care, to be able to bond with adults other than your parents and your grandparents."
Jennifer Brooks, the mother of children at B-CC and Somerset Elementary School, proposed extending daily school hours.
"Maybe we as a society have to recognize that things have changed and so we need to use these buildings after 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and [use] our tax dollars to put people there who can create a safe and caring environment after 3 o'clock," Brooks said.
Del. Mark K. Shriver (D-Montgomery) wants parents to become more vocal in urging elected officials to direct more money to school programs. "You've got to vocalize that on the state level as well as getting involved on an individual level," Shriver said, adding that, otherwise, legislators would direct funds elsewhere--to professional football stadiums, for example. "The people who voted for the football stadiums, most of them got reelected," he said.