On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Saturday, April 20 marks two decades since the mass shooting at Columbine High School. Since then, 226,000 students have experienced gun violence in schools throughout the United States.
Many states, including Maryland, have taken action to prepare for and prevent gun violence. Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2013, the state passed one of the country’s strictest gun control measures — the Firearm Safety Act. In 2018, Maryland passed the Safe To Learn Act, putting millions of dollars into school safety measures.
Montgomery County Public Schools has launched new initiatives to comply with the 2018 legislation, including new training for teachers and a screening process to find students who could pose a safety threat.
How are local schools preparing for threats of gun violence, and how does the legislation support them? We’ll talk with a Maryland state senator and administrators from Montgomery County public schools to learn more.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast students at Georgetown University voted to create a fund to benefit descendants of slaves that the university once owned and then sold.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first April 20th marks two decades since the Columbine High School massacre. Since then there have been 233 schools shootings in the U.S. according to a database compiled by the Washington Post. Like many states over that time Maryland has passed new school safety legislation including over the past year. As local students here and around the nation rallied for new laws after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Joining me to talk about school safety and gun legislation in Maryland is Susan Lee. She's a State Senator serving Maryland's 16th District. Senator Lee, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN LEEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIEd Clarke is the Chief Safety Officer at Montgomery County Public Schools. Ed Clarke, thank you for joining us.
ED CLARKEThank you, sir.
NNAMDISenator Lee, the school shooting at Columbine was 20 years ago this Saturday. You've been in Maryland in the state legislature since 2002, first as a delegate, then as a senator. When did Maryland first create laws that addressed school shootings?
LEEWell, it followed pretty much the substantive gun safety law was probably in 2013 following Sandy Hook, when we passed probably one of the strongest gun safety laws in the nation where you would have to get background checks on if you sell or transfer handguns. And certain persons couldn't have those guns. And you'd have to take training. There were a lot of other things. That was in 2013. But following on the heels of that we have introduced and passed some major laws to increase public safety.
NNAMDIIn 2018, you co-sponsored the Safe to Learn Act, which directly addresses gun violence in schools. How did that legislation come about and what did it do?
LEEWell, we need to address things like too much access to guns, because guns often lead to lethal violence. So we passed legislation to enable us to create a more safe environment for our kids in schools.
NNAMDIEd Clarke, anything you'd like to add to what the senator just said?
CLARKEYes, sir. Certainly our state last year with Governor Hogan and our state senators and our local delegates passed a very comprehensive law, the Maryland Safe to Learn Act, Kojo, and that has an awful lot of prevention intervention requirements, increased school safety funding for school safety for all of our Maryland public schools through the state of Maryland. And it really sets us on a new course moving forward to better deal with these tragedies. This certainly came on the heels of the tragedies you mentioned, Marjory Stoneman and also Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County last year where we lost a student there at that high school in a targeted act of violence.
NNAMDIYou -- please, go ahead, Senator Lee.
LEEYeah, this year there was a bill that I was lead sponsoring to prohibit an individual from knowingly threatening to commit a crime of violence that would place five or more individuals in substantial risk of death or physical harm if the threat was carried out. And this deals with threats of mass violence, because in the past prosecutors and law enforcement could not step in if five individuals didn't know they were under threat. The threat could be made online. It could be made at night. And law enforcement had to jump through so many hoops just to be able to step in and stop this.
LEESo this passed this year and we're happy. You know, two weeks after the Parkland shooting in Florida there was 648 mass violence threats reported nationwide. So this is a real problem and we want to give prosecutors and law enforcement more tools to be able to fight gun violence and mass violence.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Christina Conolly. She's the Director of Psychological Services at Montgomery County Public Schools. Thank you very much for joining us.
CHRISTINA CONOLLYThanks for having us.
NNAMDIThis is both for you and Ed in terms of what the senator just said about the law that was just passed. There's the challenge of keeping kids safe while they're in school. You are the Chief Safety Officer for Montgomery County Public Schools as part of the Safe to Learn Act requirements. You've implemented a new type of lockdown protocol. What does it involve and how is it different from the old lock down that you were teaching in schools?
CLARKEYou know, Kojo, as you said we -- 20 years out or so when we had the tragedy out there in Colorado there and we all sort of got together across the state or the country and really said, "What's the best way?" At that time it was primarily lockdown. So if there was a significant threat of violence or an active shooter, we would lock down those classrooms. But over the years we've evolved. So now what we've done in Montgomery County public schools and many other school districts throughout the state of Maryland as well as the country have other options.
CLARKESo we know that one size does not fit all. So what we have developed is lockdown with options. And it's really based on critical assessment of the situation at the time of the emergency or crisis in the building for students and staff to make a determination. Is it more safe to stay in place, secure and place in lockdown, or if you can get out in a safe manner then to exit that school and go to a safe location outside of the area that may be threatened by an active shooter or an active assailant.
CLARKESo we employed sort of the concepts of avoid, deny, defend in Montgomery County public schools. And working with Dr. Conolly and our law enforcement partners for Montgomery County Police, we've done the training at a high school level, our middle school lever. Now we're currently working at the elementary school level. But that training will be much different than the middle school and the high school level.
NNAMDII can imagine some teachers and students could be scared of the defend part of this method. What exactly are you training them to do and what has been the response during the training to this new defend approach?
CLARKEWell, what we are seeing is if that classroom may be breached, then every person in that classroom has to make a decision, can I use protective assets in that school to defend against serious serious harm? So we're not training students to be experts in any martial arts. We're not training students to throw cans or rocks at an active assailant. But what we may ask students to do is to help the teacher get to a safe place or to take preventive action to avoid any additional tragedies in that classroom.
CLARKEBut the good news is there have only been at least -- only one incident to date where a classroom has been breached. So we do know if we can get into those classrooms, lockdown, add additional protective layers of barriers, we're going to be okay until local law enforcement can get there.
NNAMDIChristina, training for lockdowns with high school students is one thing, but this training also happens as early as kindergarten. How do you approach lockdown drills with younger students?
CONOLLYWell, a lot differently than you do with high school students as you mentioned. You have to do it in what's been called a developmentally appropriate fashion. So where we may use the terms avoid, deny, defend with a high schooler, because they understand what those terms means. But a kindergartener won't know what the word avoid means. So you can't do it like that with them. So for us we're looking at terms like hideout. You have to keep out. You have to get out. So if you're in a classroom with your teacher and the biggest piece that we teach with elementary school kids is that you have to follow the directions of the adults in your classroom.
CONOLLYSo whether it's your teachers, the paraprofessionals, whomever the adult is that you're with we don't train them to go and make kind of decisions on their own, because they can't. We're not teaching them how to defend because they can't. They have to follow the directions. And so if we need them to hideout -- so instead of using a word like "lockdown," we teach them, you may hear lockdown over the intercom. But what we want you to do is to hideout. So go into the corner of the room and hide.
CONOLLYOr if you're in a hallway near a door in the cafeteria, you have to get out so you can get out of the building and follow the direction of the teacher. If you're at recess, still how to get out, how to follow the directions of those adults that are at recess and go to a safe location off of school grounds. And so you can still take the terms, teach kids what they need to know in order to be safe. But we're, again, at a developmentally appropriate level for younger children.
NNAMDIIn addition to this new approach to lockdown drills, you and Ed are heading up a new project that will allow schools to screen for violent students. What will that program do?
CONOLLYThat's what we call Behavioral Threat Assessment. That is a term for when we are providing supports and interventions for those students, staff members, other employees, even unaffiliated adults. We're going to need significant help with our law enforcement partners for is to find out who potentially may be a threat to the school. Find out in a sense like what are their grievances, like why do they want to go do harm to those in a school or to the school itself. Usually it may be a concern, let's say around bullying. Maybe it's a concern that they felt like there is somebody who is attacking them and they've tried all these things to get support, but they feel like violence is like their last resort. They can't come up with any more options.
CONOLLYOur goal as the Behavioral Threat Assessment team is to find out, who are they, what have they done so far to try to get help for themselves that has not been successful and can we as a team determine what other interventions can we do to help that person in order to move them down what we call the pathway of violence.
CONOLLYAnd because we want folks to understand that people don't just impulsively go like, I'm just going to go blow up a school today. That doesn't happen. We want folks to know that they follow this pathway. We have to find them where they are in the pathway and get them back down to the place where they feel like they no longer want to harm people.
NNAMDIWe're talking about what Maryland schools are doing to prevent gun violence. We're talking with Christina Conolly. She is the Director of Psychological Services at Montgomery County Public Schools. Ed Clarke is the Chief Safety Officer at Montgomery County Public Schools. And Susan Lee is a State Senator serving Maryland's 16th District. I'd like to get back to legislation again for a second because, Ed, you helped draft the Safe to Learn Act when you worked at the Maryland's Center for School Safety. What does that legislation require schools to do?
CLARKEWell, as we said earlier an awful lot is in there. And just as Dr. Conolly said about Behavioral Threat Assessment teams that is a requirement of the law. So every public school within the state of Maryland has to have at least one Behavioral Threat Assessment team. The Maryland Center for Schools Safety developed a model policy and guidelines to help local school systems throughout the state develop their own policy and procedures.
CLARKEAlso there's a really good requirement in there that every public school has to identify a mental health services coordinator. There's a lot of effort in there for wrap around services for mental health concerns and issues. And every school system has to identify a school safety coordinator. So those two groups working together can help us be better prepared for a variety of emergencies or crises that may occur in a public school or private school throughout the state of Maryland.
NNAMDISenator Lee, Maryland passed something called a Red Flag Law in October of 2018, which allows police to temporary seize someone's guns. Can you explain how it works and how it might help prevent a school shooting?
LEECertainly. It's a extreme risk protection order and it sets forth the process, which a family member, a spouse, a legal guardian, roommates or a law enforcement or medical professional can seek a court order to ask that a gun be taken away from a person that they would believe would pose a danger to themselves or to others. And there's adequate due process in this. And it has worked, because we have been told that three months after the law went into effect according to our Montgomery County Sheriff, Darren Popkin, he said that 148 people -- there were guns seized from 148 people and that there were about over 300 requests for this particular order. So we're hoping that this will cut gun violence and prevent people from getting those guns easily and killing people and being able to take it away and to prevent suicides too.
NNAMDIWell, the Maryland Red Flag Law did receive some pushback in November. Anne Arundel County Police Officers fatally shot a man while they were serving an order to seize his guns. Are there issues with the way the law is being enforced?
LEEWell, we're just -- you know, it just passed in 2018. But we're seeing it in different jurisdictions how it is enforced. But I know in Montgomery County that it is being used and it is also helping cut -- prevent tragedies that could happen through guns. But I think the problem is there's too much access to guns these days. And particularly guns that are at home. And this year we had introduced a bill by Senator Smith and I was a co-sponsor that would essentially not allow a person to store or leave an unloaded or loaded firearm where a unsupervised minor could have easy access to it.
LEERight now under the current law, you have to be -- you can be criminally liable only if the child is under 16. And there's only a $1,000 fine. But this bill that we introduced unfortunately did not pass, because I think their time ran out and it just didn't move forward.
LEEIt's because it would criminalize and create more accountability and probably prevent persons from allowing their house to have easy access to guns by minors, because we found out that 68 percent of school shooters used guns that they got from their homes.
NNAMDILet's go to our guest line where Andrea Shambley awaits us. Andrea, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREAThank you, Kojo, for having me. And I want to thank Senator Lee and her colleagues in the House like Vanessa Atterbeary about their hard work on laws that can prevent gun violence. And we've heard from the law enforcement officials and the resource officers now about all the hard work and resources they're putting in to trying to prevent violence in schools. And it's important to remember that school violence is in inextricably linked to gun access by dangerous persons. And I know a lot of people frequently parched these bills and they tell me that I shouldn't be supporting them, because they wouldn't have saved my husband.
NNAMDIAnd you should tell our listeners the circumstances under which your husband was killed.
ANDREABut a particular provision wouldn't save my husband. But saving my husband is off the table at this point. That's never going to happen. What's on the table now is saving someone else's loved one. And the Senate and the House are trying to discuss this and the climate around this issue with stunts like flying that slogan over the capital while Speaker Busch is being memorialized just frustrates our ability to consider sensible popular solutions to this gun access that results in gun violence.
NNAMDIAllow me to have Senator Lee respond. And I should mention that it is my understanding that you lost your husband in the Capital Gazette shooting, is that correct?
ANDREAYes. My husband was one of five people, who got killed for going to work that day.
LEEYeah, we in the legislature -- I was the lead sponsor in the Senate and as Delegate Vanessa Atterbeary was the lead sponsor in the House, we introduced a bill that would require background checks on the purchase of long guns or shotguns by unlicensed dealers or private sellers that someone could purchase either online or at gun shows or just in the privacy of, you know, their home or business, but did not have to go through a background.
LEESo we wanted to require background checks to prevent those who should not have guns who are disqualified from having guns under the law from going around the law and purchasing a shotgun or a long gun from an unlicensed dealer or a private seller. And the bills unfortunately didn't move forward, because we ran out of time and it was on the last day and we weren't able to reach a compromise between both bills.
LEEBut we intend to bring it again next year and we hope that the legislature will make it the highest priority.
NNAMDIWell, Christina and Ed, I was going to ask you how will this threat assessment look like at the school level and it would affect students. But I think Nicole in Rockville, Maryland can do that better than I can. Nicole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICOLEHi. Hi, I have two kids in Montgomery County schools so this is very concerning to me. I have a senior and I have a second grader. And last year I was dropping off my second grader and they were doing an active -- or a shelter in place drill is what I think my little one called it. And because I was in the building at the time I had to participate and it was very strict. And the kids knew what to do. And there was another parent that happened to be there and we were looking at each other like we were concerned, because they took it very seriously.
NICOLEBut the kids seemed very calm and relaxed and they knew what to do. And it made me feel good as a parent, but then I also felt a little sad. But this is what they're doing. But I appreciate the extra efforts to look at gun control as well, because it goes back to some of that and I would never even live in a red state as a result of that. I don't want guns all around me. It's just too easy when the guns are there. And so I did see firsthand that they're trying to take care of our babies and I appreciate it.
NNAMDINicole, thank you very much for your call. Christina, how are you teaching students and staff to tell whether someone seems to be a threat?
CONOLLYOh, there's a lot of new initiatives in place right now. Especially with our new Maryland State Tip Line where kids, staff members, community members, can either use their phone, they can call in anonymous tips to us to report incidents where they have concerns. One of the biggest things we're trying to teach kids is that if they see something to say something and to do something, to make sure that they go and tell a trusted adult when these concerns are happening.
CONOLLYAlso a big part of our signs of suicide prevention program also teaches kids how to act, how to acknowledge, how to care, and to go and to tell a trusted adult. And so there are many different things coming from different vantage points that are teaching kids what they need to do when they see students or their friends or others who are in need of care. And that's for them to go and to get an adult to tell them what's going on.
NNAMDIEd, we had a caller, who couldn't stay on the line who wanted to know why not introduce metal detectors in all schools? That's being done in some places.
CLARKEWe know, Kojo. We look at the broad spectrum, all hazards approach. That may be one option, but I think when you go to that extreme you have to be committed for the entirety. I think there's better opportunities for us to invest in relationships with students, having a trusting relationship in every school building with an adult, having a positive relationship with the school resource officer, those things. Practicing these drills, understanding that it's okay for students to come forward if a fellow student is in crisis, it's up to the adults in the building and the professions like Dr. Conolly to take that information and to intervene in a positive way.
CLARKESo I think the more that we can do in prevention intervention. If we so choose to, we can turn all of our schools into fortresses. But we need to find that balance of openness and safety at the same time.
NNAMDISpeaking of which, Senator Lee, after the Parkland shooting there were bills that came up in Annapolis that would have allowed teachers to be armed. How was that received?
LEEWell, I don't think teachers should have to go to school and be part of their job know how to use an assault weapon or a handgun. There were bills that were introduced, but they did not move out and they were not passed and they were defeated.
NNAMDIEd, how are Montgomery County Public Schools working with law enforcement on the screening protocol we've been talking about?
CLARKEWe are very very fortunate to have an outstanding relationship with our Montgomery County Law Enforcement. Montgomery County Police, the Sheriff's Department, Rockville City, Gaithersburg City, Chevy Chase Police, it's really about those relationships. And having school resource officers in all of our high schools have been very very important. And I do want to mention by way of the Maryland -- the Safe School Act, every school resource officer in the state of Maryland for the first time will have to go through a 40 hour curriculum developed by the Maryland Center for School Safety and that curriculum focuses on a lot of prevention and intervention, de-escalation techniques.
CLARKESo all of SROs will be going through that training as well as SROs from out the state of Maryland. So it's really really important. The other thing is when we get -- social media has been a complete game changer. When these threats come in by way of social media, we immediately assess the threat at the school level and partner with our law enforcement professionals.
CLARKEAnd what we've seen throughout the state of Maryland is that if it's 2:00 a.m. in the morning, Kojo, and a threat comes in especially expressing violence where a firearm or a automatic weapon may be involved, our law enforcement officers are going into the community and having a conversation with the parents and the students to try to assess the level of threat and to run down the credibility. So we can be safe in school the very next day. And then they'll share that information with us. So having those partnerships is very very critical, because our law enforcement officers have children in our schools as well. So they're a great asset to have.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time fairly quickly. But, Christina, this program puts an onus on the school system to be a mental health resource for students. Should it fall to schools to serve as a psychological evaluator for its students?
CONOLLYWell, actually schools across the country are the primary provider of mental health services to students. I think somewhere as like 70 percent of student receive their mental health support within schools from school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers that are assigned within the buildings, and so kind of -- this belief of, well, the community health providers do this? They do? And we make referrals out to them especially for really significant cases that are outside the bounds of let's say what a school psychologist can do.
CONOLLYBut there aren't enough community providers to provide all of the mental health support that our students need. When we think of mental health needs in our school, we have to think of one and five, so one in five students have mental health concerns in this country. And that is not enough for our community mental health providers to do alone. We must have the support of the school psychologists, counselors, and social workers that can provide the counseling and support that our students need.
NNAMDIChristina Conolly is the Director of Psychological Services at Montgomery County Public Schools. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIEd Clarke is the Chief Safety Officer at Montgomery County Public Schools. Thank you for joining us.
CLARKEThank you for talking about this important issue.
NNAMDIAnd Susan Lee is a state senator serving Maryland's 16th District, but before you served in the Senate you served for many years in the House. And tomorrow is the memorial service for former House Speaker Michael Busch and I'm pretty that not only do you and your colleagues have condolences from all of us. But it's something that you all feel personally, I guess.
LEEYes. We knew him. I've known him since I got to legislature. He was a dynamic leader and we'll miss him enormously.
NNAMDISusan Lee is a state senator serving Maryland's 16th District. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, students at Georgetown University voted to create a fund to benefit descendants of slaves that the university once owned and then sold. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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