A group of parents from Tuscarora High School said they left a meeting last week with LCPS Superintendent Eric Williams feeling cautiously optimistic, with a sense of trust that their concerns are being heard.
“That trust has been lacking for a while,” said Jeff Mitchell, one of the parents who has been leading a charge for the school system to review its communication and security response procedures. Also at last week’s meeting were Ashley Ellis, assistant superintendent of instruction; and Kevin Lewis, assistant superintendent of support services.
Following an incident at the high school in March in which an Air Force recruiter was able to bring a gun into the school, the parents brought their questions and concerns to the school board, speaking during public meetings in April and May. After giving no official response to the parents for weeks, in a May 21 statement from Lewis, the school system announced a series of steps designed to improve school security, including a full review of visitor management protocols, and an ongoing three-year capital improvement project to install or update secure vestibules across all 92 schools in the county. Developments continued last week with the board approving a contract related to the vestibules project.
In addition to listening to their concerns about security and communications, Williams told the parents he would facilitate a meeting later this summer with two new directors that LCPS recently hired—Rob Doolittle and John Clark. Both are newly created staff positions. Doolittle is the director of communications and community outreach, and Clark will join LCPS August 1 as director of safety and security. A former senior executive with the United States Secret Service, Clark also led its Criminal Investigative Division and Dignity Protective Division, and served in its Presidential Protective Division. He is a graduate of James Madison University and the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University.
“I was really pleased that Dr. Williams committed to encouraging the new directors to meet with us,” said parent Jill Weiss. “We were taken very seriously, there was mutual respect at the meeting,” she added. The parents are seeking more standard practices across schools, specifically when it comes to emergency response and communications protocols related to security situations. While they understand some leeway is required from school to school, and situation to situation, they pointed to examples where inconsistent practices can lead to confusion among students.
One example is the practice of locking school bathrooms as a response to the problem of student vaping, a “Draconian solution” that takes away a potential hiding spot from an active shooter—not to mention time taken away from learning while students search for an unlocked bathroom during non-emergencies. Another example is that despite a system-wide endorsement of Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention initiative that helps teach kids how to cope, the program is not available at all schools, including Tuscarora High School.
The parents, who said the meeting was set up with the help of Beth Barts—a candidate for the Leesburg District seat on the School Board—pointed to research done following high-profile school shootings including in Parkland, FL and Columbine, CO that led to increased programs around student mental health. “The information is all out there,” Mitchell said. “Mental health is such a huge part of safety. They are so linked,” Weiss added.
In addition, the parents studied responses to incidents across Loudoun schools, and found different reactions. For example, the response to one incident involved a “field of counselors” for students the following day, while others included little or no response at all. “It should be consistent,” said parent Ryan Benton.
Through their experiences looking at Tuscarora, examining school-wide policies and canvassing responses at other schools, the parents learned that there are still some important areas where some principals are being allowed to operate in silos.
“Fifteen years ago, that might have still worked. Heading into 2020, there needs to be more standardization of policies that affect students across the board, to help those principals who need extra support,” Mitchell said.
“The problems we’ve discovered are systemic,” Weiss added.
“With Doolittle and Clark in place, LCPS should know exactly where to go, and they should deliver for us,” Mitchell said.
While the parents decided not to press Williams for a timeline, they plan to follow up with Doolittle and Clark to work out more specifics.
There are two new initiatives they won’t have to wait for: a new mental health hotline, and an app for reporting safety concerns, both of which will be in place for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.