Improving school safety was a constant theme heard during 2019, amid reports of mass shootings nationally and a few local scares.
Starting in January, the issue became a campaign theme by two countywide candidates, incumbent Sheriff Mike Chapman and Republican County Chairman nominee John Whitbeck, who rolled out a plan to expand the School Resource Office program to 56 elementary schools. Officers already are assigned to middle and high schools. While Chapman said the program expansion could be phased in over a four-year period with $10.5 million in start-up costs, he did not propose it in his budget request to supervisors. Chapman laid out a $13 million plan during a detailed briefing to members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors. County leaders agreed to consider it, along with other security measures while working on next year’s budget.
Two incidents that occurred in March amped up pressure on school leaders to improve controls at school entrances. Early in the month, parents and students at Madison’s Trust Elementary School got a scare when men claiming to be affiliated with the Black Panthers staged a protest inside the school. Three weeks later, a man planning to set up an Air Force recruitment table was arrested for carrying a sidearm inside Tuscarora High School.
Two months later, school district administrators unveiled a comprehensive plan aimed at improving security measures and procedures, including a three-year plan to construct new security vestibules at every school.
In July, the school district created two new staff positions to address the concerns. Former U.S. Secret Service executive John Clark was named director of safety and security. Rob Doolittle was hired as director of communications and community outreach with the expectation of improving the crisis communication with parents.
Concerns heightened again in August when 31 people were killed in mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. While the shootings did not happen at schools, a group of Tuscarora High School students organized a vigil on Leesburg’s town green to read the victims’ names and advocate gun control legislation.
“This could have been us,” said Kaylynn Breland, one of the organizers. “You can’t predict when something like that is going to happen, so I feel so blessed and so lucky to have this.”
At the start of the new school year, the Sheriff’s Office and school division rolled out a new app—Safe to Talk—designed to allow students to anonymously submit information about suspicious or criminal activity directly to dispatchers.