In a long-awaited response to parents, Loudoun County Public Schools on Tuesday night sent an update about school security procedures, including the launch of a full review of visitor management protocol and a three-year secure vestibules project across all 92 elementary, middle and high schools in the county.
“Over the next several months and into the foreseeable future, we will be implementing changes to procedures at all LCPS campuses,” wrote Kevin L. Lewis, assistant superintendent for support services. “Some of the changes will be more obvious than others and some may affect your experience as you visit our schools.”
Working with local police and school-based administrators, the school’s leadership is “reviewing security protocols, systems and infrastructure,” he continued. “Rest assured that we will continue to encourage and support families visiting and participating in your student’s educational experience,” Lewis wrote. “Our hope is that minor changes that may appear to be an inconvenience may be seen as proactive protections for the benefit of your children.”
The response comes amid recent security concerns raised by the community, including parents of Tuscarora High School students. On March 19, Mi-Allah J. Grant, 18, entered Tuscarora with a sidearm while setting up a U.S. Air Force recruitment table. A school security officer confronted him and Leesburg Police arrested him on the felony charge of having a firearm on school property. The charges were later dropped by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
After the incident, parents sought answers from the School Board and others about how the man got into the school with a firearm, and some said they feel relieved to get an official response two months later, while others are questioning whether the update adequately addresses the communications element of the security issue.
Tuesday night’s update centered around two specific programs: visitor management protocol and secure vestibules, which already exist at entryways to some of the newer schools.
“Anyone entering the buildings would have to go into the main office prior to entering the rest of the building,” stated School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg). “Newer construction, such as Frederick Douglass Elementary School, has that feature already,” he added.
The secure vestibules project begins this summer as part of the School Board’s Capital Improvements Program. Over the course of three years, all of the schools will be brought up to speed. Some will involve more time and money, and others will be less involved, Lewis said. “Not all schools are constructed the same, therefore, the scope of each project will differ in terms of physical and technological improvements,” he wrote. “The project will be very limited at some schools, but very extensive at others.” All visitors will be required to check in with the front office when entering any school prior to going anywhere else in the building. Principals at each of the individual schools will work with LCPS staff to provide updates to parents about specific buildings.
The protocol for school visitors is also under review. “We are reminding all visitors, staff and students that admittance to our schools during the school day requires verification of authorization and a planned purpose for visiting,” Lewis wrote. This includes having a government-issued photo ID ready and present when requested; using the visitor management intercom system at the main entrance to all schools; and stating your name and your reason for visiting. “All visitors must check in individually,” Lewis wrote, reminding parents that that an advanced appointment is required to meet with a particular staff, visitors must sign in at the main office or greeter’s table, and to avoid holding the door open or allowing anyone else to enter after being checked in.
“I was relieved to learn they are taking our concerns about school safety seriously. They acknowledged, for the first time, that security improvements are necessary at LCPS, said Jill Weiss, one of the parents who has spoken to school board members and Tuscarora principal Pamela Croft.
“While the statement doesn’t address all of our concerns, it is certainly a start. I am hopeful that it represents the beginning of what will be an ongoing, open dialogue between parents and administrators about systemic issues which warrant serious discussions.”
Jeff Mitchell, another parent who spoke to key stakeholders on security and communications, said that while a few weeks late, the update “is much welcomed. While a communications plan wasn’t mentioned, we are hoping that is part of the overall changes.”
Lessons from Tuscarora
Marshall noted that an additional security officer was added to Tuscarora following the incident, and the school has cameras that the security officers check constantly. In addition to the security updates, LCPS is in the process of hiring a communications director with experience in response management.
“Our communications when safety threats are present has been slow and lacking confidence among the public,” Marshall said. “The School Board is hiring a professional communications director over the public relations personnel to produce a quicker and more responsive delivery of information to the public.”
The new hire “will make decisions based on best practices in the profession,” he added. “For instance, when is it appropriate to hear from the Superintendent directly rather than through surrogates.” Marshall also noted that social media has made the response situation more challenging at times, especially in cases where “promoting unsubstantiated rumors [can] inflame situations.”
“Citizens need to be more circumspect when spreading information that has not been verified,” Marshall stated. “We also need to understand that the Sheriff’s Department and the Leesburg Police have to do an investigation prior to making statements to the public and the principals are getting their instructions from the central office, so as not to make a false statement or undermine an investigation.”
Marshall also advocated a hotline where parents could receive updates during and following a potential emergency, and for law enforcement to release additional info, without naming names, in short order after incidents that cause community concern.
“LCPS is committed to school campus security and the safety of our students and staff,” Lewis stated.