Alexa Sciuto’s Spanish class was about to start that Halloween morning when she heard kids screaming that someone had a gun inside Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex. Students ran down the halls, including four who ducked into her classroom for shelter.
The threat turned out to be a false alarm, but this wasn’t the first time Sciuto felt like her life was at risk while in school. She was a teacher at Pine Grove Middle School when an explosive device was found in the school’s parking lot in 2022, and she was a junior at Perry Hall High School when a student shot another student in the cafeteria in 2012.
Although Baltimore County Public Schools hasn’t had someone shot inside a school building since then, threats of danger on and around campus have persisted. On Monday morning, students at Owings Mills High School had to evacuate the building after a false bomb threat, and four guns have been found on Baltimore County school grounds this fall alone.
Safety remains a top concern for parents, who’ve seen the prevalence of school shootings rise nationally over the last decade, stoking fears that it could happen here. In response, Baltimore County’s superintendent named safety a major priority when she took office this summer, and the school system has more than doubled its safety budget in five years to add layers of protection like safety assistants, trainings and gun-detection software.
The heightened fear also motivates people like Sciuto to be more aware and take action when any sign of danger is perceived.
“It’s not a risk that I’m willing to take because I’ve seen it,” she said. “If it can be happening, my students can be in danger. So, I’m going to lock down. I don’t wait.”
That morning, she remembered her active shooter training and told students, some crying and some taking it as a joke, to spread out in the room. That makes it more “difficult for someone to get everybody all at once,” she said. She told them to hide beneath something if possible while also thinking about what she could throw if a shooter got in.
She braced for an announcement on the intercom that would confirm and direct the school to lock down. That’s what happened during emergencies in the past.
In those instances, “there’s just something different about their voice … that said to me that this seems like the real thing,” she said.
But the announcement never came. There wasn’t any communication for a while, she said, so she tried calling the front office. She couldn’t get through at first, suspecting everyone was calling at once, but they later returned her call saying classes could resume, that the building was safe and that there was no threat.
Sciuto didn’t feel safe, though. She was unhappy that an email was sent instead of an intercom announcement, and thought the school building should have locked down just in case.
“There was a perceived threat that was very real to a lot of kids in that time,” she said. “And I fear that that is going to cause kids to question their judgment in a real situation at some point.”
A school system spokesperson said the cause of the false alarm was still being investigated.
Two weeks ago, the school system learned of another shooting threat at Northwest Academy of Health Sciences in Pikesville. An investigation was quickly conducted, and Superintendent Myriam Rogers responded directly to the threat at a Tuesday school board meeting.
“Threats to schools, false threats to school violence, those are frightening to staff members as well as frightening to students and parents,” Rogers said. “It is extremely serious.”
She added that police are pressing charges against the student who made the threat and an investigation revealed that students are making threats of violence as a “dare or just for fun that interrupts normal school operations.” A school system spokesman said they could not share the number of times false threats have been made.
The superintendent said when she started the job in July that safety is one of her priorities. Nearly $2 million has been allocated for this year’s safety budget. It was about $925,000 in 2018.
April Lewis, executive director of Baltimore County’s school safety office, said she’s noticed a more fearful school community since mass shootings have become more frequent. To make them feel safe, multiple layers of safety are integrated within the system’s protocols. For example, 19 safety drills are conducted at each school every year, according to Lewis. One of them is the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training that teaches staff what to do when there’s an active shooter. It started in Baltimore County about five years ago, and all employees must take the online course every September.
“There is nothing that is going to prepare you for the real situation,” Sciuto said.
Nothing is foolproof, Lewis said, that’s why they depend on many safety measures. By the end of 2023, Omnilert, a security camera software that detects guns, will be installed in nine schools. And by the end of the school year, all schools will have it, according to Lewis. The move mirrors neighboring Baltimore City, where a similar system is being piloted.
Lewis added that all schools have safety assistants, though some split their time between schools. All middle and high schools have at least one school resource officer, while elementary schools are regularly visited by an officer in their precinct. And vestibules — contained spaces where visitors wait to be granted access to the building — are being installed in more schools. But it’s the relationships staff members have with students that prevent situations, like having a gun, from turning into a tragedy, Lewis said.
“If a student hears something, they are coming to us with information,” she said. “We constantly stress that safety is everyone’s responsibility.”