Alexandria City Public Schools has made changes in safety precautions following the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn., when 20 children and six staff members were killed.
“We have done some site safety assessments on several of our schools,” Wendy Brown, assistant director of facilities, occupation health, safety and risk management for ACPS, said during a Tuesday night school safety panel discussion at T.C. Williams High School. “And we have implemented several changes.”
Brown said she was not at liberty to publicly discuss all the changes.
Panelist and ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman added, “What I learned years ago, and what I learned again after Newtown, is the best way to secure a school is to have interaction, make sure kids and their parents and the community feel comfortable with each other, with the school, and know each other and are willing to communicate.
“So with all the additions we’ve made and all the changes we are still going to put into place, I still believe that human interaction, that piece of caring that we hold so precious here in Alexandria, regardless of our positions, is going to ensure the safety of our kids,” he said.
Brown also explained what happens during a full school lockdown. If there is a threat inside the building, or a drugs or weapons search, the principal lets staff know the school is on lockdown. The school administrator then calls Alexandria police, who let the school know when the lockdown can be ended. For example, Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy recently was in a lockdown during a police shooting.
ACPS spokeswoman Kelly Alexander said administrators let parents know what occurred during the school day by sending home letters with students and/or putting information on the school district’s website and Twitter feed.
In response to a question about the ability of students to move about schools and leave fairly easily, Brown said all school security cameras are integrated. Sherman said he was recently asked how George Washington Middle School ensured all students returned to class after a recent evacuation and noted that every school rehearses situations such as evacuations and keeps a list of all students to maintain safety.
Another audience member asked if ACPS and police had conducted a schools threat evaluation. Panelist Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook said police are working with educators about how to keep facilities safe in the case of a threat and that school resource officers build relationships with staff and students, helping ensure safety.
“This is a fairly safe school system that has what would be considered normal disruptive things that happen in any major system,” Cook said. “However, it’s a fairly safe system, and that’s part of the broader community. This is a fairly safe city to live in, and it reflects that for our children. But we can’t take anything for granted.”
Brown and Sherman told audience members that parents can help increase safety by staying in touch with their child’s teacher and reporting any concerns to school administrators or police. Parents also need to pay attention to issues including whether their child is being bullied or is using alcohol or drugs, Cook said.
“Being nosy is essential to the safety of your children, which is essential to the safety of your school,” he said.
Panelist Ron Lemley, director of the Alexandria Juvenile Court Service Unit, said in fiscal year 2011, the city had 950 juvenile complaints. The most common offense was a status offense—such as truancy or runaways—then larceny, then alcohol or drug use, then assaults. At any one time, he said, the city usually has 10 to 12 youths in juvenile detention, whereas Arlington County, which has a greater population, usually has 25 or 30.