Against a backdrop of escalating parent concerns and recent developments including a federal civil lawsuit against the school system, the Loudoun County School Board is meeting with the Board of Supervisors and Sheriff’s Office on Thursday to discuss school security. Among the topics of consideration will be whether to add school resource officers (SROs) into elementary schools.
Parents have spoken before the school board in recent weeks raising concerns about a number of security incidents, including at Tuesday night’s meeting. Concerns persist among parents of Loudoun Valley High School students, who again urged the board to take action.
“LVHS is failing at its responsibility to educate students,” parent Richard Lambert told the board. In addition, a LVHS student and her mother spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting and criticized school officials for ignoring their pleas for help following a sexual assault by another student last year.
“How do you respond with silence?” asked Vicky Chrisner, mother of the LVHS student, scolding the board for doing nothing in response to another student incident at Trailside Middle School.
On May 24, a Trailside Middle School student and her mother filed a federal civil lawsuit Eastern District of Virginia against the school system, seeking more than $10 million in damages. The complaint claims that school officials failed to take steps to protect the student after an alleged series of actions that included “forceable rape” by teacher Felix Colaciello. Colaciello was suspended, then reinstated after investigators concluded there was no evidence of an assault.
LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams defended the school system’s response to the Trailside incident, reading the following statement:
“The safety of all Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) students and staff is our highest priority and LCPS takes all accusations regarding student safety seriously. The allegations contained in the recent lawsuit involving Trailside Middle School have been investigated thoroughly by LCPS, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and the County Family Services Department. The investigations were thorough, extensive and rigorous, as appropriate in the case of such serious claims. For example, during the LCPS investigation, 18 individuals were interviewed (some more than once), video files of activity in the school were reviewed and the physical environment was examined to assess the validity of the allegations. The County Family Services Department and LCPS concluded that the complaint was ‘unfounded.’ After a complete investigation and after gathering all the facts, evidence, and statements, the Commonwealth’s Attorney declined to bring charges. Based on the outcome of the extensive investigations conducted into this matter, LCPS will vigorously defend against the lawsuit.”
Security and communication procedures at Tuscarora High School also came under scrutiny in recent weeks after an incident March 19, when 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 Grant 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. Parents expressed concerns about the communication response following the incident, and in late May, LCPS announced the launch of a system-wide review of visitor management protocol and security procedures that includes a three-year project to install or update secure vestibules across all 92 elementary, middle and high schools in the county.
School Resource Officers
During Tuesday night’s school board meeting, LCPS staff provided updates on early conversations with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office about whether to expand the SRO program to elementary schools. Members of the school board are meeting with the Loudoun Board of Supervisors on Thursday for a joint session that will include Sheriff’s Office representatives.
Currently, each of Loudoun’s 15 high schools has one SRO from the Sheriff’s and one school security officer (SSO) that works for LCPS. There are also four more SSOs that rotate and go to specific high schools when needed.
Each of the county’s 16 middle schools has one SRO and a team of six junior resource officers, or JROs, from the Sheriff’s Office that also teach the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. The junior officers “may or may not have the licensure and qualifications needed to serve as SROs,” the staff report states.
There are no SROs dedicated to elementary schools, which are covered on an as-needed basis. The partnership between the schools and law enforcement entities was last ratified in 2015, and discussions are ongoing about areas that need updating.
Williams and assistant superintendent Kevin Lewis met with Sheriff Mike Chapman Feb. 7 to discuss the advantages of assigning one SRO to each cluster specifically for elementary schools, as well as one more SRO per high school in each cluster. There are 15 high school clusters, and each cluster consists of one high school, one middle school and multiple elementary schools.
Another option of many still on the table include increasing the number of LCPS-employed SSOs while extending their presence in elementary schools, Williams explained. He noted that in fiscal year 2020, the school board has funded eight additional SSO positions across the school district, after approving four new SSO positions and four full-time exterior security patrols in FY19. Also funded for FY20 is four more security patrol positions and four security dispatcher positions.
SROs in the middle and high schools carry out numerous activities, including student and staff relationship building, as well as responding to specific law enforcement calls for service, such as trespassing, vehicle crashes, drug and alcohol issues, smoking and vaping, suspicious vehicles or persons, and weapons. Some board members asked about the impact of having SROs in elementary schools, asking LCPS staff to explore the issue more in depth.
The Sheriff’s Office stated that the benefits of SROs and SSOs in schools outweighs the negatives. “While prevention efforts can be difficult to measure, there is little doubt that the increased efforts that both SROs and SSOs are involved in on a daily basis maximize potentials for success in prevention.”
According to Sheriff’s Office responses provided to LCPS, there were five student arrests between August 2018 and April 2019. Across Virginia, there are 86 school divisions with an SRO presence in elementary schools, out of 132 total districts across the state, according to a 2018 Center for School Safety audit.
Tuesday’s school board meeting also featured the advancement of a $1.07-million construction contract with MCN Build Inc. for the next portion of the security vestibules project. On Feb. 12, the school board awarded a pre-construction contract to MCN Build to begin work on the project, including the development of plans for vestibule renovations at 51 schools. The new contract covers the first four schools under the project—two elementary schools and two middle schools—and installations will take place over the summer. The company is also working on timelines for the remaining phases of the project, to be completed over the next two to three years.
The Joint School Board and Board of Supervisors Committee meeting takes place at 4:30 p.m. in the County Administration Building on Harrison Street in Leesburg. Williams reiterated that the meeting represents an early stage of discussions, and many questions still need to be resolved. “We’re looking at this, and don’t have a decision yet,” he told board members to relay to supervisors if pressed for any official action on Thursday.