March 13, 2018
On February 28 at 7 pm, the Howard County Board of Education members, educators, parents, and students gathered at River Hill High School for the School Safety and Mental Health Forum spearheaded by the HCPSS Superintendent, Dr. Michael Martirano, as well as the Director of Security, Emergency Preparedness, and Response, Tom McNeal.
“[We] can’t expect children to succeed when their safety is threatened,” Dr. Martirano stated as part of his earnest, impassioned speech, which began with a 17-second moment of silence in honor of the 17 victims who were killed during the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
He also stated that he is “vehemently opposed to arming teachers” and that there is “nothing more important than keeping our children safe.”
This forum was convened following the tragic shooting to address concerns from parents and educators alike.
“We don’t need more police officers with guns,” said Erika Strauss Chavarria, a Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School, adding that she feels we need “anti-racist, anti-bullying, [and] restorative justice.”
“Community members also raised questions about how many threats occur and the protocol for dealing with them. “We’ve had officers knocking on doors at 10:00 at night,” said the Chief of the Howard County Police Department, Gary Gardner, reassuring the audience that both the school and the police department take threats of violence by students very seriously and promptly act on them.
Moreover, Dr. Martirano stated that not only will active shooter training be given to staff, but it will also be given to students.
The questions and concerns were not just limited to parents and educators; students played an active role in this forum. A River Hill senior leading the National Student Walkout on March 14 invited politicians to meet with him to discuss the important issues.
At the forum, members also discussed mental health. Dr. Martirano told the audience to try to destigmatize it, while one parent suggested that Behavior Intervention Plans need to be more individualized.
Emotions ran high in the River Hill High School auditorium. Several times, the audience members spontaneously broke out into applause, including when one parent emphatically stated that the real issue is that the U.S. need stronger gun laws.
School shootings has become a hot-button issue in the past several years, igniting conversations about mental health and gun violence prevention. Since the 2012 massacre of 26 elementary school students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, there have been at least 239 school shootings since, according to the New York Times. There have also been several Maryland gun bills passed in the General Assembly, such as a Permit to Carry, Wear, or Transport a Handgun, according to the General Assembly of Maryland website.
After the program, Dr. Martirano announced that he is continuing to accept questions and that he welcomes any and all suggestions when it comes to improving the school system.
Perhaps Martirano said it best towards the beginning of the program as he talked about the Florida shooting in particular, emphasizing that shootings could happen anywhere.
“Bad things happen to good people,” he said. “You always have to keep your guard up.”