By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Three weeks ago, the news that Mohamed Aly, an 18-year-old T.C. Williams High School student, had been arrested and charged with a double homicide shocked the community.
Aly, a player on the T.C. Williams varsity football team, was charged on Feb. 13 with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. The double murder for which he was charged, of Ntombo Joel Bianda, 21, of Alexandria, and Ayanna Munne Maertens Griffin, 19, of Germantown, Maryland, took place in Halifax County, Virginia on Feb. 8.
Because Aly’s arrest was part of an ongoing criminal investigation, Virginia State Police, the lead law enforcement agency on the case, haven’t released details about his connection to the crime. But some parents and students have sought answers to different questions: Why did the arrest take place at school, and what happened at the school that day?
“There is a lack of transparency and information about what actually took place, and important questions need to be answered,” parent Chris Hubbard wrote in a letter to the editor published in the Feb. 20 Times. “Could the arrest have been made outside the school, without risk to around 3,000 students? Did the authorities knowingly allow a double homicide suspect to enter the school to arrest him with 3,000 unsuspecting students in the school?”
Corinne Geller, public relations director with the Virginia State Police, declined requests for an interview, but provided the following comment:
“Based on the timing of our investigators confirming the suspect’s information and in the interest of public safety, the murder suspect was taken into custody as soon as was possible. State police coordinated with school officials to ensure the necessary decisions were made and steps taken to ensure the apprehension went smoothly and no students were placed in harm’s way. … [Aly] was cooperative and taken into custody without incident.”
The day of the arrest, rumors were swirling within the student body.
One student – who requested to remain anonymous and will be referred to as “Smith” in this article – said most students began to realize something was going on at the school around lunchtime. Word had begun to spread that the school’s front entrance and hallways around the main office were blocked to student traffic.
“They usually make an announcement online that if there’s a crime nearby or something, of if there’s a danger close to the school, they’ll make an announcement online about what’s happening, but they didn’t say anything,” Smith said. “There were rumors that there was like a school shooter, which was terrifying.”
T.C. Principal Peter Balas sent an email to staff around midday saying that everything was fine and instructing teachers to continue with classes as they normally would. Shortly before 5 p.m., Balas sent an email to T.C. parents alerting them of the arrest. Balas did not mention the type of crime nor did he cite Aly by name in this initial communication.
Smith said the only piece of communication to students on Feb. 13 was an announcement toward the end of the school day telling students to proceed to buses as normal and avoid speaking with any of the reporters waiting outside the school. The alleged announcement has not been confirmed by Alexandria City Public Schools staff.
Balas and Helen Lloyd, ACPS communications director, spoke with the Times to clarify some of the details of that day and the procedures ACPS followed during the incident.
A key piece of information they revealed was that when state police came to the school, it was to question Aly. Police had not predetermined that an arrest would take place, Lloyd said.
“A student was brought in for questioning and at that time we don’t know what the situation, the outcome is going to be,” Lloyd said. “It was rumors that were being investigated. It was not that he came in as an accused murderer. He came in because there were rumors that needed to be investigated. We just provide the space for the questioning to take place. That’s our role.”
Lloyd and Balas declined to say when police alerted the school that they would be coming in to question a student. However, Balas said Aly was taken to a designated holding area as soon as he arrived at school that day.
“He was met at the door by my staff,” Balas said. “It was normal school arrival time.”
Classes at T.C. begin at 8:35 a.m. At some point, state police officers came to the school to question Aly.
There were false rumors among students that FBI officers were also at the school. The FBI Richmond Field Office assisted the Virginia State Police in the early stages of the investigation; however, there were no FBI personnel present during the arrest, Dennette Rybiski, public affairs specialist with FBI Richmond, said.
Alexandria Police Department were also present at the time of the arrest, but not involved in the investigation, APD Public Information Officer Courtney Ballantine said.
“The Alexandria Police Department assisted state police at T.C. Williams just to be a presence,” Ballantine said. “Our role was not anything to do with the investigation, other than to be present.”
There were also rumors among students that Aly wasn’t the only student questioned by police, Smith said.
“I heard stories of people who were having people pulled out of their class [to be interviewed,]” Smith said. “Half of the school didn’t know what was happening, and the only reason people found out what was happening was because people who got interviewed told.”
Lloyd and Balas declined to confirm or deny whether other students were interviewed by police. State police declined to answer specific questions about the arrest.
At some point during Aly’s questioning, state police alerted Balas and staff that a transport was going to take place – in other words, that police were going to arrest Aly.
It was at this point that the front entrance and surrounding hallways were blocked off to normal student traffic.
“We didn’t shut the office down immediately,” Lloyd said. “It was only when the police said they were going to transport, that’s when we shut the office down so that the student who gets transported, it runs in privacy. We do that for any situation when there’s transportation.”
“That’s for medical transports as well,” Balas said. “So if a kid has a seizure of some sort, we do that so that they can be taken out in privacy.”
Lloyd emphasized that this was not a lockdown; it was part of a process that staff go through anytime a student is being transported out of the school, whether it’s by law enforcement or emergency responders.
“Lockdown is a very, very different procedure,” Lloyd said. “Lockdown is when you have a violent intruder or active threat inside your building. At no time was there that.”
Transports typically take only a few minutes, Balas said. On Feb. 13, however, the main entrance and surrounding hallways were closed off for more than an hour.
“What happened that day was basically, when they alerted me that they were getting ready for transport, that’s when I made the call to privatize the hallways,” Balas said. “Then what happened, it was not happening as they said it was going to happen: very soon. And that’s where it took longer.”
Balas said the length of the shutdown could have contributed to student and staff concern.
“It did take a little bit longer, which is where I think some of the concern started coming in,” Balas said. “Normally, there would be an email from me to staff saying, ‘Here’s what’s going on. Everything’s fine.’ That day we were limited in what we could communicate at that time, but at the first available moment that we could, I alerted staff that we’re back open for business and everything’s fine.”
The nature of the arrest and its ties to a criminal investigation hindered when and what ACPS could tell staff, students and parents, Lloyd said.
“We had to wait until the state police put out a statement. We cannot put out a statement around an arrest, particularly when a student is being named, until the state police have put their statement out. So the second they put their statement out, we put ours out,” Lloyd said.
When asked why the incident took place at school, Lloyd and Balas did not provide a direct answer and said the decision was up to the police.
“The questioning was happening here because the police wanted it to happen here,” Lloyd said.
“Why did this have to happen here? Students come here because it’s safe,” Balas said. “And students are connected to different adults in ways differently than they are with their parents or in places outside the building.”
In response to concerns about student safety, Balas said there was a never a point where students were in danger.
“There was never a time where that kid, where anyone was in a situation that wasn’t supervised or not secured. Once on property, it was a secure situation from the moment the student was on the property. It was never a situation where that issue was exposed to other students,” Balas said.