U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told parents, students and educators in Baltimore County on Wednesday that while Americans might not agree on gun control legislation, they must work together so that children can grow up without fear of violence in schools.
At a town hall-style meeting before a packed auditorium at Loch Raven High School, Duncan said communities must have tough conversations to address the violence that has hit schools across the country — including those in the county that hosted him Wednesday.
"If we, as a country, don't do something different now, I don't know when we will," Duncan said. "I don't know what it will take."
The school safety forum, co-hosted by National PTA President Betsy Landers, was Duncan's second visit to Baltimore County since August, when he appeared at Perry Hall High School to talk to county English teachers.
Shortly after that visit, Baltimore County was shaken when a Perry Hall High student was critically injured on the first day of school after 15-year-old Robert W. Gladden Jr. opened fire in the school cafeteria. Other gun-related incidents followed, including an episode in which a Stemmers Run Middle student allegedly threatened his teachers and classmates with a gun at the Essex school.
Wednesday, Duncan was joined by a panel that included national experts on school safety and county police Chief Jim Johnson, who has taken a national role in promoting gun control as chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.
The discussion drew people from around the region, and touched on issues including cyber-bullying, religion in school and whether schools should have armed guards.
"I just think we have to be transparent and have these hard conversations," Duncan told an audience member who expressed concern that some violence goes unreported in schools. "I can't accept any place that sort of sweeps this under the rug."
The education secretary said school violence is personal to him because of his previous role as CEO of public schools in Chicago, where he said community members "literally bury a child every two weeks due to gun violence."
He discussed mental health assistance, and said President Barack Obama wants to increase access to mental health services and work to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness so that people aren't afraid to ask for help. But he stressed that schools must work with government agencies and other organizations to do so.
After the event, Loch Raven High senior Monique Hawkes said she found a question about religion in schools provocative and unexpected. A student had asked the panel whether school can be a place where people express their religious faith. Panelist Bill Bond, a school safety specialist with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said religion and education "are not in conflict."
"With all the tragedy going on right now, it's perfect for someone to say, 'It's OK to pray about it,' " said Hawkes, 17.
Gaye Hodges, a paraeducator who works with autistic students at Johnnycake Elementary in Catonsville, said she is concerned about the availability of mental health services for students, and she liked Duncan's message of getting everyone involved to make schools better.
"It can't just come from the politicians alone," she said.
Over the past year, Superintendent Dallas Dance created a school safety and security office, and the system held its first anti-bullying day. The County Council in February approved a $3.7 million package to buy cameras that stream live video to police stations and patrol cars, and to install new entry systems and visitor identification systems in schools, among other safety measures.