When Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance announced plans this fall to create a school safety office in the aftermath of several gun incidents, some in the community assumed he would pick someone with a badge to lead the new department.
Instead of choosing a police officer, Dance last month named a 36-year veteran of the system who has worked with high-risk students and led efforts to respond to emergencies in schools.
Safety is something Dale Rauenzahn already handled in his previous post as the schools' executive director of student-support services — along with health, counseling, athletic and social work offices.
"Now it can be 100 percent of my job," he says.
"Dale is an incredibly hard worker," said Don Mohler, who is chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and once supervised him when they both worked in the school system administration. "There are talkers and there are doers, and Dale Rauenzahn is a doer. You give Dale a task, and he's on it."
The school system has dealt with several incidents this year involving weapons. On the first day of school, a shooting in the cafeteria of Perry Hall High critically injured a 17-year-old. Two weeks later, a student took a loaded gun to Stemmers Run Middle School, where he allegedly threatened his teacher and classmates. And most recently, police found bullets in a student's jeans pocket at Deer Park Middle School, while an Owings Mills High School student was arrested after police say he brought a BB gun to school.
The new office of safety and security will coordinate programs involving emergency management, anti-drug efforts, student discipline and other issues, Rauenzahn said.
A key to protecting students and teachers is to get students involved "and changing the climate within the school" to help students speak up about what they see, Rauenzahn said.
With bullying, for instance, the strength in defeating it "is in the person that's watching," he said. "The bystander has power."
He'll also take on the controversial topic of metal detectors, which some parents have called for in the wake of the gun incidents. The school system's steering committee on safety and emergencies is now reviewing research on stationary metal detectors, which Rauenzahn said have "major budgetary implications."
"They do lower the number of weapons that get into schools," he said. "On the other side of that are a lot of psychological issues."
This month, police distributed hand-held metal detectors to school resource officers, who have been trained to use them only if they have reasonable suspicion that a student or visitor has a weapon.
A former elementary school teacher, Rauenzahn was a pioneer in the local alternative education programs for high-risk students.
He was the county's first alternative education specialist and helped revamp the county's alternative education centers in the 1990s. He also built the county's adult education program, which was later turned over to the community colleges.
Mike Gimbel, who worked with Rauenzahn when Gimbel led the county's efforts against substance abuse, said Rauenzahn "always brings resources together" and is open to using outside expertise.
Gimbel worked with Rauenzahn in the 1990s to bring drug counselors into the county's alternative schools. Rauenzahn also helped change the county schools' drug policies so that when a student was caught with drugs or alcohol, the student was evaluated for substance-abuse issues, Gimbel said.
"That was a really radical change for any school system," Gimbel said. "I'm glad that the superintendent understands that this is not a problem that's going to be fixed by police or metal detectors. It has to be fixed from inside the school system and changing the culture. It means the students, it means the parents and it means the staff."
Dance had planned to create a safety office before the school year began, though the recent gun incidents highlighted the need for one, schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said. Many people predicted Dance would bring in someone with a law enforcement background, but that was "not something we said was a must-have," he added.
The schools already have a law-enforcement presence because of the school-resource officer program, Dickerson said. But Rauenzahn brings a deep knowledge of the system to the position, he said, and already has been immersed in safety issues.
As the school system's critical incident manager since 2002, Rauenzahn has led the system's response to all types of emergencies. If a student dies in a car accident, for instance, he helps make sure enough counselors are at the school to help students cope with the loss.