Baltimore County officials promised new safety measures Tuesday to prevent violence in public schools — including hand-held metal detectors, an increased police presence and a new administrative security office — after a teacher wrestled a gun from an eighth-grader two weeks after a shooting at a nearby high school.
The changes, to take effect in the coming weeks, will be folded into a larger "systemic look at what steps the school system can take" to prevent further acts of violence, said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who pledged that the county will "allocate resources in whatever capacity" necessary. Officials also called on parents and guardians to do a better job of securing weapons at home.
Shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, a 13-year-old boy stood at the end of his first-period class at Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex and pulled a small, loaded handgun — about the size of a cellphone — from his pocket, county police said. The eighth-grader then threatened his teacher, more than two dozen other students in the classroom and himself before his female teacher "grappled" with him and forced him to drop the weapon as other students fled the room, police said.
Later Tuesday, the boy's grandfather, Norman James Gatewood, 70, of the 300 block of Stillwater Road in Essex was served a criminal summons charging him with failing to secure the .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun from the boy. A woman at his home said he was unavailable for comment.
The classroom incident, in which no one was injured, comes about two weeks after 17-year-old Daniel Borowy was shot by a fellow student in the cafeteria of Perry Hall High School on the first day of school. A male guidance counselor at the school, Jesse Wasmer, intervened, grabbing the student, Robert Gladden Jr., 15, and wrestling him to the ground, police said.
After the Perry Hall incident, school officials facing a barrage of questions from parents at a community forum were noncommittal about specific changes they planned to implement, promising only that they were reviewing the situation and the system's safety protocols.
But with Tuesday's incident further amplifying concerns, officials detailed what they called "preliminary steps" in their larger review process.
Kamenetz said he had authorized an increased police presence throughout the school system. Police Chief Jim Johnson said school resource officers will soon be issued hand-held wands for detecting metal objects when suspicions are raised or potentially dangerous situations arise. And schools Superintendent Dallas Dance said the school system will launch a new Office of Safety and Security.
An entirely revised crisis plan for the system will also be "rolled out very soon," addressing a variety of potential school emergencies, Dance said.
The county said in a news release that it has begun the process of buying the hand-held wands and "hopes to have them in place within the next few weeks."
In recent years, incidents involving guns in county schools have been rare, though not unheard of.
Two years ago, two students at Perry Hall High were charged as adults with possession of a firearm after an unloaded gun was found in one student's book bag. In the 2008-2009 school year, there was a gun-related incident at Stemmers Run Middle, the details of which were not immediately available.
Since the 2005-2006 school year, there have also been gun-related incidents at Joppa View Elementary, Essex Elementary, Milford Mill Academy, Catonsville High School and Rosedale Center. Last year there were no incidents. By comparison, Baltimore City public schools reported 10 gun-related incidents last year.
Dance, in his first year on the job, said the system's schools are safe places for students, but the recent incidents have "ratcheted up" efforts to revise the system's crisis plan that he began in his first week.
Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said she approved of the initial measures. She said she does not believe forcing all students through metal detectors at the start of each day, which has been called for by some parents, is necessary or practical.
Most students bring cellphones and other hand-held devices to school and getting them all through metal detectors would disrupt class schedules, she said. "The time element is unbelievable," she said.
Beytin also echoed other officials by calling on parents to do more to limit students' access to weapons and to watch for warning signs that their children are upset or troubled.
Johnson said the metal-detecting wands will be "used only when a police officer has reasonable suspicions" that a crime is likely to occur, and it remained unclear late Tuesday whether the Stemmers Run student who brandished the gun — which had five bullets in the magazine and one in the chamber — would have landed on the radar of such officers.
Police said he hadn't been in serious trouble before and had easily concealed the tiny gun on his bus ride to school and during his first class.
Johnson said police are going to charge the boy as a juvenile, in part because the charges he is likely to face do not carry a life term in prison. Juveniles charged with crimes are not identified.
Gladden, the Perry Hall student who allegedly shot his classmate, was charged as an adult with attempted murder. Borowy was released from Maryland Shock Trauma Center on Monday after undergoing multiple surgeries.
Tuesday's incident disrupted the Stemmers Run school day for many students, though the school was never closed.
Police first responded about 9:50 a.m. to find the school in lockdown and the boy who had pulled the gun — he also had a 6- to 7-inch hunting knife on him — under arrest by the school's resource officer, who was down the hall when the female teacher called for help on a hand-held radio. Dance said all county teachers are issued radios.
The school remained in lockdown until 11 a.m. as police searched it.
School officials called the parents of all of the estimated 25 to 27 students in the classroom when the gun was drawn, and those students and their teacher were all offered counseling almost immediately, Dance said. Principal Gordon Webb also sent a letter home to all parents, stating that counselors are on hand for all of the school's 600 or so students.
Shortly after the morning incident, many students remained in their classrooms as parents were invited into the school auditorium to be briefed on the situation. Some parents said they were happy with how the school handled the incident. Others expressed anger and frustration, saying they were left in the dark for hours.
Tom Van Blargan, whose 13-year-old daughter is an eighth-grader at the school, said he waited for two hours at the school with little information.
"They're telling us everything is fine, but [my friend's daughter] was texting her mom saying there were police with bulletproof vests in the hallways," Van Blargan said.
Chasity Slaski of Hawthorne said she "freaked out" after receiving an automated message from the school alerting her to an incident but providing no details.
Slaski, whose 12-year-old son, Michael, is in seventh grade, said she jumped in her car and drove to the school, and plans to keep her son out of school Wednesday.
"I will move my whole life to protect my kids," Slaski said. "I'm not willing to jeopardize my kids' safety."
Her son said his class wasn't told why they had to stay in the same classroom through multiple periods.
"They didn't tell us what happened, but we've been practicing lockdown all year," he said.
Many students left the school with their parents before the close of the day, and many buses left the school almost entirely empty just after 3 p.m.
Johnson, Kamenetz and Dance all implored parents to ensure any weapons at home are secured.
"This is the responsibility of the parents and it's also the law," Kamenetz said.
State law requires gun owners to secure loaded firearms from children 15 and younger, and violations are misdemeanors punishable with up to $1,000 in fines. Gun locks cost as little as $1 online, Johnson said.
In the Perry Hall incident, police said Gladden got the long gun he allegedly used to shoot Borowy from his father's house. Gladden is 15, but police have filed no charges against his father.
Apart from their focus on gun safety, officials also roundly praised the unidentified Stemmers Run teacher for her actions.
"Again, one of our teachers acted heroically," Kamenetz said, in a nod to Wasmer's actions at Perry Hall last month.
Beytin said teachers by nature think of their students first. "It's like a parent. You can't live without knowing that you did everything you could do," she said.
But the teachers are victims of the violence, too, Beytin said, and the incidents have taken an emotional toll.
"After an incident like that, you realize what you've just been through," she said.