The Maryland school district that’s in the national spotlight for a high school rape case involving two undocumented immigrants is launching a review of security across all 204 of its schools in the suburbs of Washington.
Jack Smith, superintendent of the Montgomery County system, said in a message to the community Thursday that the district would begin the assessment as early as next week, focusing first on its 25 high schools.
“The recent tragic incident at Rockville High School has caused all of us to stop and reflect on our work to ensure the safety and security of our students,” he wrote.
Smith’s message was his third written statement to parents and others since the March 16 incident at Rockville High School left many in Montgomery shaken and drew attention from the Maryland State House and the White House.
Some parents and community leaders have questioned how the alleged violence could have happened during school hours without being noticed. According to court documents, two students allegedly took turns raping a 14-year-old girl in a stall inside a boys’ bathroom while classes were underway.
The immigration status of the suspects — Jose Montano, 17, who was charged as an adult, and Henry Sanchez Milian, 18 — brought the case national attention because both are undocumented and the debate over U.S. immigration policies is especially intense.
While campaigning for president, Donald Trump promised more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. Since he took office, many communities have debated the role of local law enforcement in those efforts, and Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill that would limit the cooperation most state and local police extend to federal immigration authorities.
Attorneys for both suspects have said the sex acts were consensual.
In the wake of the incident, hundreds of angry calls, tweets and emails poured into the 159,000-student school system, Maryland’s largest. Rockville High has received two threats that required police action, including one from a caller vowing to “shoot the illegals.”
About 100 demonstrators rallied Sunday near county government offices, urging that more be done to prevent crimes in public schools. Another demonstration took place Thursday at school headquarters, coinciding with a school board meeting.
Smith said that while Montgomery has a “robust security system” — with thousands of cameras and security personnel in schools — officials will examine what is in place school by school and look for possible improvements. The review will be conducted by school district staff, with assistance from outside experts.
Among key issues are each school’s use of personnel and security cameras, access to more remote areas of facilities, procedures for managing students outside the classroom and protocols for responding to allegations of student-to-student harassment and assault.
The district will compare its security approach with those of other school systems and organizations that serve youth, Smith said.
At his regular Monday news conference, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner said he met Sunday with Smith and Police Chief J. Thomas Manger to discuss what steps to take.
“The superintendent advises me they are conducting a comprehensive safety audit at the high school and using it to inform what they may need to do systemwide,” said Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). “I have informed the superintendent that I will support any additional funding that is required to ensure our schools have the resources they need to make sure our kids are safe.”
Board of Education President Michael A. Durso also welcomed the examination, saying that a periodic safety review makes sense. “There are 203 other schools besides Rockville, and situations can and do happen,” he said.
Last school year, there were 250 sex-related “serious incidents” in Montgomery, according to a district safety report. The category includes unwelcome sexual advances, verbal and written harassment, assault and rape.
The incident at Rockville High took place at 9 a.m. in a less-traveled area, on a campus of 1,450 students that is equipped with 105 security cameras and monitored by five security staff members and a police officer who serves as a school resource officer.
School board member Patricia O’Neill said the case left her with questions about security cameras, isolated areas of schools and teacher procedures for checking attendance and tracking when students are out of class for extended periods.
“The incident at Rockville High School shocked us all, and I think it is totally necessary and appropriate to do a review and make changes,” she said.
Some say the security measures must come with changes in student culture.
“It’s great that the school system is reevaluating its security practices,” said Paul Geller, president of the countywide council of PTAs. “This is a good start. That said, the families and the students must also be on board for what is the behavior we expect of students in our school system.”
Parent Jennifer Luther, who has a middle-schooler in the northern area of the county, said schools should have tighter procedures for enrolling students. She said she agrees with the school policy of accepting children regardless of immigration status. But, Luther said, she wants to be sure students have sufficient documentation of their identity.
“If my child has to bring her birth certificate and her immunization records, did these two (suspects)?” she asked. “That’s my first question.”