“Just fix it, whatever it is. Whether it’s arming teachers or if it’s taking away all the guns, whatever it is. Focus on school security and that’s it.”
The impassioned request from Brian DuCharme, a father of a Loudoun County student, was made to the School Board last night, almost two weeks after a shooter stormed a Florida high school, killing 17 students and teachers.
Several parents and teachers approached the board to urge them to do more to protect students and educators in the county’s 90 public schools.
“The next headline could read Purcellville, Sterling. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen,” DuCharme said. “You guys can be the School Board who said we’re going to fix this.”
Brenda Bengston, a former teacher, said she hopes the School Board is not looking to arm teachers. “Teachers are hired to teach, facilitate, mentor and serve,” she said. “Teachers signed up for the brain business. Please seek their input about a variety of safety measures.”
Amy Tribie, a former teacher and a parent of a student at Lucketts Elementary, asked school leaders to give students an outlet to express their concerns and offer solutions. She referred to the walkouts that some students are planning to protest gun violence.
School system administrators sent a letter to parents and teachers earlier this week stating that they do not support activities that interrupt instruction, including walkouts, and that students who leave class without permission would be disciplined. The letter also encouraged principals to work with teachers to provide students’ opportunities to express their opinions in a manner that does not disrupt learning.
Tribie suggested the board consider holding a town hall meeting to have an open dialogue with the students. “I would encourage you to engage these kids. They’re the ones who are dealing with this day in and day out. They’ve got some really good ideas. Let’s listen.”
Superintendent Eric Williams and Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) told the few hundred people gathered in the board room that the discussion about improving school safety has been going on for years and will continue.
“Our focus on this precedes the recent school shooting,” Williams said. “We’re constantly assessing our practices in these areas and asking how can we do better.”
“The recent shooting in Florida has highlighted the challenges in school safety and security across the nation, and many have requested immediate action,” Morse said. “We have been working on this, from hiring more mental health staff and more security staff to upgrading safety equipment.”
He noted that the board has increased safety and security funding by 52 percent in the past two years. The operating budget the board adopted earlier this month, requests another $3.7 million boost to hire additional security guards, give their current guards more hours, and update security equipment.
Specifically, that money will pay for four more security patrols to report to schools on an as-needed basis, increase the hours for existing safety and security specialists by 200 to 250 at each high school, dedicate about $107,000 to bring on contracted security officers to help at high schools as needed, and buy new security system radios and alert equipment.
The requested security staff would be in addition to the security guards who are assigned to every high school, Douglass School and the crowded Mercer Middle School. Every middle school and high school is also assigned a school resource officer, which is a sworn officer from either the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office or Leesburg Police Department.
The budget for next fiscal year, which begins in July, also carves out $3.2 million to expand mental health services for middle school students through support teams made up of school counselors (17 additional would be hired), social workers (seven additional) and psychologists (seven additional). Last year, the board created and staffed mental health teams at each of the high schools, when Loudoun saw an increase in suicides among teens.
Morse said, “We have been and will continue to be proactive in keeping our school community as safe as possible.”
Williams announced that the board will hold a work session dedicated to the topic of school safety at 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 13.
Two organizations are also working to provide venues for students to share their concerns and ideas about school safety. Loudoun Youth Inc. and IndED Academies will host three simultaneous forums called DCUB3D (discuss.debate.discover). They will happen at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at three locations: Purcellville Library, Sterling Library, and Rust Library in Leesburg. Teens are asked to RSVP by texting which location they plan to attend to 703-626-4888.