One month after the deadly shooting at a Florida high school, the Loudoun County School Board is reviewing safety protocols and considering adopting a resolution on gun violence prevention.
Several members of the School Board were taken aback by just how much school staff does to prepare for emergencies, from undergoing regular safety drills and staffing every secondary school with sworn law enforcement officers, to receiving alerts when an alarming word is searched on any digital device in a school facility.
“I think LCPS has been very proactive in developing security protocols and the investment in a lot of new techniques and technologies and safety,” School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said this week. “I am confident of the safety of our kids. I’m more nervous when they’re on the Beltway.”
The board held a work session on school safety Tuesday, with the goal of understanding what is being done to keep students and the staff safe in the face of emergencies, like a shooting, and what more can be done.
“It is without any doubt that our world is changing and continues to change, and we are working very hard to make sure that we continue to keep our students and staff safe,” Kevin Lewis, assistant superintendent of the Support Services Department, told School Board members this week. “This is an opportunity for us to continue to improve and work on our preparation measures.”
Lewis ran down a long list of trainings, equipment and staff that the school system has in place to protect against threats and talked about several other initiatives he wants to get off the ground. All staff members have undergone “Run, Hide, Fight” training that teaches them, first, to attempt to flee the dangerous situation, second, find a place to hide from a perpetrator’s view, and, as a last resort, attempt to incapacitate the perpetrator. Students and staff members are taught to report any suspicious activity and regularly practice lockdown, tornado, earthquake and fire drills.
“Continuous practicing helps engrain in the students how to respond during an emergency,” Lewis said.
Every high school, Douglass School and the crowded Mercer Middle School has a security officer, and every middle school and high school is also assigned a school resource officer, who is a sworn and armed law enforcement officer.
Lewis said the school system’s safety and security division meets bimonthly with members of the county emergency management staff, and the division’s safety supervisor, Suzanne Devlin, serves as the president of a group of Northern Virginia school leaders who meet quarterly to talk about school safety.
The School Board, at Superintendent Eric Williams’ recommendation, 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.
Administrators are also asking for $14.4 million to make school entrances safer. They want to redesign the entrances of 75 schools to construct security vestibules. Rather than admitting visitors directly into the school building, where possible, those vestibules would direct them first into an administrative area, such as the school’s front office.
Lewis stressed that the staff is careful to not publicize all of the safety protocols, to prevent that information getting to someone who means harm.
School Board members generally commended Lewis and other staff members on their work to plan for all possible emergencies. Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said he’d like staff to consider installing metal detectors and baggage scanning equipment at the schools. He has raised concerns from the dais several times about schools being soft targets for terrorist attacks.
Lewis did not directly respond to DeKenipp’s suggestion, but mentioned earlier in his presentation that school psychologists have said that an overemphasis on extreme measures can actually undermine students’ perception of safety.
Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) directly spoke against that idea. “I would never be in favor of trying to turn our schools into prisons and I don’t think students would feel safe in that environment,” he said.
He said that he sends his children and his wife, who works as a teacher’s assistant, to Loudoun public schools every day without hesitation. “Students, you have every right to be outraged, but you should not be scared. There’s a big difference. Outraged at what’s happening because children are dying but not being scared at Loudoun County Public Schools because your staff and your School Board is doing everything we can to protect you.”
Later in the meeting, the board discussed whether to adopt a resolution on gun violence prevention. Joy Maloney (Broad Run) drafted the language and based it largely on a resolution Fairfax County School Board adopted. Among other statistics, it states that about 19 U.S. children per day are killed by or receive emergency treatment for gunshot wounds. It also calls on Congress to pass “legislation that more effectively prevents gun violence incidents, reduces the lethality of gun violence, and advances mental health supports.”
All but two board members spoke in support of passing the resolution, but most wanted to tweak the language to make it more specific ahead of a final vote Tuesday.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who was in favor of the resolution, called it political. “I will support it because sometimes you have to be political.”
Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) called it commonsense. “We need significant discussion at every level of government on this topic.”