Charles Co. schools make safety upgrades for new school year

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WASHINGTON — A large number of safety and security upgrades have been made in Charles County Public Schools ahead of the new school year, and more improvements are coming.

Many were prompted by the case of Carlos Bell, who worked as a coach at several county schools and as a teaching assistant at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School between 2014 and 2016. He was convicted of coercing children into performing sex acts with him, in order to produce child pornography.

“An incident at Stoddert with an … ex-employee who did very, very inappropriate, unimaginable things to some of our students, changed our world,” said Superintendent Kim Hill at a town-hall meeting Wednesday at St. Charles High School in Waldorf.

“As good a job as we thought we were doing with school safety and security, once that incident happened, all bets were off,” Hill said. “We took a whole new, fresh look at school safety and security.”

New school employees will now have to get a background check based on their social security number, in addition to the fingerprint-based background check the school system has required for new hires for more than 30 years. They’re still deciding whether current employees should also be required to get the new background check.

The district has a new Office of Safety and Security directed by Jason Stoddard, who spent more than 20 years with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office before retiring in July as a lieutenant.

The new office is overseeing the district’s school resource officers, which have been in the county’s middle and high schools for years. The school system also has a new 27-member independent School Safety Advisory Council.

A new Twitter account, @CcpsSafe, has been established so students can communicate directly with the Office of Safety and Security. Charles County Public Schools have also have added a new anonymous reporting tool to their website, along with a hotline where anyone can report safety threats.

On the mental health front, there will be full time psychologists in all high and middle schools this school year, as well as in four elementary schools.

By the time school starts, all staff will have gone through new active shooter training. It emphasizes that when reacting to such an event, people should make the best choices they can based on the information they have. The staff is also getting “Stop the Bleed” training, so in an emergency they know how to stop blood loss.

Bus drivers now have the ability to communicate directly with the 911 center if problems arise, and school computers have been upgraded.

“We’ve been able to purchase, and to implement, a program that allows us to take over computers inside of our whole system and flash messages across those computers from campus to campus to make sure that we’re better communicating,” Stoddard said.

More cameras have been added to several buildings, and plans are in the works for new student identification badges — possibly with bar codes on them.

Doors have had numbers placed on both the inside and outside. “In the event that we do have an emergency at a building, we can quicken that response,” said Mike Heim, assistant superintendent of supporting services, adding that the new numbering system would allow emergency services to better plan their response.

Some school entrances are also being changed to improve security. Heim explained that the current situation effectively grants visitors free access in over 21 older buildings after just an initial buzz-in. Once you’re in, that’s it — no need to go directly to the main office, which Heim described as concerning.

To solve that, vestibules at entrances have been added at Henry E. Lackey, La Plata, Thomas Stone and Westlake high schools, John Hanson and Benjamin Stoddert middle schools, and William B. Wade Elementary School. Work will begin this fall on similar upgrades at Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer and Arthur Middleton elementary schools, Mattawoman Middle School, and the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center.

The district also wants to add walls and lockable doors to its 11 “open space” schools. Those upgrades began over the summer at Arthur Middleton elementary, and the schools are asking for state funding to make similar changes at Dr. Gustavus Brown and Eva Turner elementary schools, as well as at Benjamin Stoddert Middle School.

Fall classes begin in Charles County Public Schools on Tuesday, Sept. 4.

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Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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