Alexandria schools focus on school safety amidst gun violence

Alexandria schools focus on school safety amidst gun violence
Interim ACPS Superintendent, Dr. Lois Berlin, speaks outside George Washington Middle School after a police officer accidentally fired his gun in the building on March 13. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott |

In the wake of mass school shootings across the country, Alexandria students and parents are counting on administrations in their schools to keep the city’s youngest residents safe.

Alexandria’s public and private schools have varying prevention and response plans for threats and active shooter situations, most of which have been revamped in recent years due to the increase in school shootings nationwide. In the interest of keeping Alexandria’s schools as secure as possible, specific details of plans are exempt from this article.

“[School shootings] have become way too frequent when you think of the fact that there have been 18 in the last year,” said Dr. Lois Berlin, interim superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools. “That’s why Alexandria looked for something that was going to be beyond locking down or locking in.”

ACPS implemented a new response program in mid-2017 called ALICE, an acronym that stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.

Berlin said ALICE is one of the most robust active shooter programs in the country and much different from strategies ACPS had in place 10 to 15 years ago, when lockdowns were designed to protect against drive by shootings. While past plans were labeled by coded language, ALICE informs students and teachers much more literally.

“If there is an active shooter in the building, and we can use the intercom system, it’s going to be, ‘We have an active shooter in the building, and he or she is near the gym,’” Berlin said, “making sure that everybody knows as much information as we can send out.”

At ACPS, more than 100 staff members are trained in ALICE with the rest going through online and situational learning now, Berlin said.

Photo Credit: ACDS

Alexandria Country Day School is also in the process of updating its current security plans, Head of School Scott Baytosh said. He said plans have been in a continuous review and revision process since the school began consulting with an external security firm about six years ago.

Both Baytosh and Berlin said the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, that resulted in the murder of 17 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was not the reason that they updated security plans. They did say, however, that it sparked their urgency.

“I think we have a greater sense of urgency to get our training done and to do that more quickly,” Berlin said. “Other than that, we’re still making sure that the systems we have in place are being done with fidelity and consistently.”

One common change occurring throughout the public and private schools in Alexandria is ensuring that facilities have one point of entry and strict visitation regulations.

“Part of the aspect of having old buildings is that schools were originally designed to be wide open, everybody welcome, come on in,” Berlin said. “Of course that has changed over the years as these events have become more frequent.”

Berlin said all visitors to schools are filed through a single entrance where they must sign in at the office. ACPS has been renovating old schools to be more secure and building new schools with fewer doors in general.

Berlin also addressed the mental health factors that are often tied to mass school shootings.

“From the mental health point of things, we have a pretty robust threat assessment plan in place,” she said. “What we’re finding – particularly given the events of the last year – is that staff and students are much more prone to say, ‘I’m really worried about such and such.’”

Several schools said they regularly encourage students and teachers to voice concerns about peers.

“We are intentional in the development of close, trusting relationships between student and adults,” Jen Desautels, director of communications at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes said in an email, “and as such, our students know if they ever have any concerns about their peers, they can share information with those adults.”

Francis C. Hammond Middle School (Photo Credit: ACPS)

ACPS recently put its emergency plans into action in response to a tweeted bomb threat against Francis C. Hammond Middle School. On the morning of Jan. 18, students were transported to T.C. Williams High School until the scene was cleared by the Alexandria Police Department. The police had caught the perpetrator by the end of that day.

“It really went smoothly,” Berlin said. “The police department was just a great partner in that process. Staff did a great job. We had 35 buses at Hammond within 10 minutes, and then the staff at T.C. Williams was terrific in welcoming 1,500 kids into their gym.”

Joel Finkelstein, father of a Hammond student, also said he was happy with how ACPS handled the threat.

“My main takeaway was how much communication there was from the school district and the school,” Finkelstein said. “What can be really unnerving in times like that is not knowing what’s going on, but they had a really good text message system, … emails and then social media. In a hard time when you’re dealing with logistics, the fact that they kept the parents informed along the way meant a lot.”

Another parent, Claudie Riefkohl Laratta, said she was not as enthusiastic about how things played out, especially regarding organization and communication.

Laratta said she received four emails between 10 a.m. and 12:55 p.m. with updates, but no one answered phones when she tried to call. She was also unable to get in contact with her daughter, as middle school students are required to keep their phones in their lockers.

Finkelstein said he was in contact with his son via text message during the evacuation, despite the rule.

“I understand that it was an emergency, and I understand, thank God, it ended up serving as a drill for them, but they need to get their act together about how they’re going to get the kids out and at the same time, have enough personnel to keep the parents informed,” Laratta said.

In response to parent complaints, Berlin said the school’s top priority during the evacuation was to keep children safe and accounted for, which had been successfully accomplished.

“There were some parents who were unhappy because they wanted to come in and get their kids right away,” she said. “We were saying, ‘Let us account for everybody first, make sure that each teacher that took their class out has every child in place before we start releasing everybody.’”

Berlin also said she did not want to change the policy that bans cell phones during class time.

As evidenced in the Hammond evacuation, ACPS has been working closely with the police department to prepare for emergencies. During regular school hours, the middle and high schools have one to two armed School Resource Officers on property, in addition to several security guards. Berlin said she is firmly against arming teachers.

APD Spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said the police department works with all the schools in the city, public and private, regarding safety concerns or any issues. Several schools said they also work with the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office to have security on campus.

Police Chief Michael Brown said at city council’s March 6 legislative meeting that the police department has completed training and knows what to do in an active shooter situation.

“Every time something happens, we look at it and try to learn from it, the same thing with our school system,” Brown said.

In addition, he told council APD has an understanding with police departments in neighboring jurisdictions regarding mutual aid response in the case of an active shooter.

“As a parent, as well as a police officer, I can’t think of anything more high priority than responding to an event like that at a school,” he said at the meeting. “Going forward we will come up with ideas that might make our communities even more safe and our schools as best they can be safe.”

Despite these safety measures, administrators throughout the city said they’ve been hearing concerns from their school communities since the recent spike in school shootings nationwide.

“It’s difficult coming from my position,” said Peter Davey, Bishop Ireton High School’s director of operations, “because we think we’re prepared, then you see something coming like Parkland. It’s hard for anyone who’s developing these plans to anticipate everything that might happen.”

“People are nervous,” Berlin said. “They’re on edge. I am too. When something like this happens, every time it happens, [I ask] what can we do? How can we prevent it from happening here?”

Please visit your school’s website for emergency and safety information.