By Olivia Anderson | email@example.com
After a fatal stabbing incident on May 24 at Bradlee Shopping Center that left an Alexandria City High School student dead, parents, leaders and community members are scrambling to figure out how to best promote student safety.
In pursuit of this goal and an ongoing investigation, Alexandria City Public Schools implemented a modified return to school schedule that began on Tuesday and will run through Friday.
Peter Balas, ACHS executive principal, sent an email to families over the weekend detailing the modifications, which include a focus on “social, emotional and academic learning to help fulfill critical in-person graduation requirements and provide students with the social-emotional support they need.”
While certain groups of students are meeting in person these last four days of the school year, such as seniors who need to complete graduation requirements or students in a specialized instructional program, the rest are participating in asynchronous virtual learning.
“My heart goes out to all Titan students, staff and families as we traverse this incredibly painful time together,” Balas said. “This year has been far from normal. And it is important that we do not try to normalize it. We must band together to support each other now, next week, and into the future.”
Some parents have supported this change, while others have not. Marcus Lindsey, whose daughter is a student at Minnie Howard, works occasionally as a substitute on campus. He questioned what exactly went into the district’s decision to backtrack from its initial plan to return all students to school this week, expressing frustration over another stint of virtual learning for many students as a result of the incident.
“Right now, my daughter is sitting upstairs doing virtual classes again. Why is this? Do they not feel safe?” Lindsey said. “It’s a tragedy, it’s a singular tragedy, and it does impact the entire community, but I go back to, ‘Why aren’t we back in school?’”
Lindsey also called for stricter citywide policy changes, claiming that the culture of discipline is too relaxed.
“The big piece for me is, ‘Who is responsible for this?’ There is a child that’s dead, and it was during school hours,” Lindsey said. “… Our system has led from behind on a lot of things, but nobody was held to account and responsible for this. Now we’ve got murder.”
The incident involved 30 to 50 students who started a fight which exploded into a melee in the McDonald’s parking lot of the Bradlee Shopping Center. ACHS senior Luis Mejia Hernandez, 18, was stabbed during the fight and died after being transported to a nearby hospital for treatment. The Alexandria Police Department announced on Wednesday that they have arrested a juvenile suspect, a 16-year-old male, and charged him with murdering Mejia Hernandez.
A video of the incident has been circulating on social media and shows a large crowd of students fighting in the parking lot. In the video, a student suffering from a stab wound briefly stands up before falling back down.
Some community members have blamed the Alexandria Police Department for not doing more earlier and breaking up the fight effectively, but others contend that the police scanner’s timeline shows APD’s rapid response as events unfolded.
The police scanner audio reveals that a Bradlee mer chant made a call at 11:29 a.m. to complain about “disorderly conduct” and several kids making noise in the parking lot. At 12:03 p.m., an officer reported that two patrol cars drove through the area and didn’t see anything. At 12:25 p.m., an officer called for backup to help with an altercation and then called again for additional units and medics. At 12:27, a stabbing was reported for the first time.
ACPS revealed additional security measures in response to the melee. For the remainder of the school year, APD support officers will patrol the King Street and Minnie Howard campuses. Student ID cards will be required to access all campuses, staggered dismissals will be in place to lessen the number of students leaving at one time, and athletic competitions will take place at away fields or non-ACHS fields in the city.
Additionally, ACPS is making amendments to its “Lunch & Learn” program, during which students don’t have to eat in the cafeteria. APD responded to the incident at 12:26 p.m., during ACPS’ lunch period.
The amended policy, like the old policy, forbids students from leaving campus during lunch. It appears the prior policy was not enforced on May 24 when the incident occurred at Bradlee. It is not clear whether it has previously been enforced with regularity.
In a statement to the Times, Balas clarified the current lunchtime policy.
“The current expectation at lunchtime allows students to eat outdoors on school grounds and travel between campuses via ACPS buses,” Balas told the Times. “They are not authorized to go anywhere else or leave campus during the school day.”
The King Street campus’ “Lunch & Learn” program will now be divided into two 35-minute sessions, effectively halving the number of students eating lunch at one time. Students will have access to certain locations on campus, with a four-minute transition period in between the two sessions. They will continue to be allowed to eat outdoors but not be allowed to leave campus.
The Minnie Howard campus will continue its current structure, where class blocks swap after the designated 30-minute time block. Both campuses will have area and hallway supervision with an increase on the number of adults on supervision duty.
Some community members have criticized the “Lunch & Learn” policy for being too lenient and a possible contributing factor to the May 24 incident, but others claim the issue is more nuanced.
School Board member Abdel Elnoubi, who has previously been outspoken about social-emotional learning and security support staffing, called for a detailed examination of current district policies once the police investigation concludes.
“I think it’s too early to jump to conclusions. In the meantime [we should] continue to take precautionary measures as [has] been the case since the incident,” Elnoubi said. “I personally think that once the investigation concludes, the Board should look into any relevant policies that may need to be re-evaluated or better enforced.”
Melynda Dovel Wilcox, who served as Alexandria PTA Council president from 2008 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2014, said in an emailed statement that no one individual or party is to blame for what happened. Instead of pointing fingers, she said, community members and leaders should remain flexible and open to change while figuring out next steps.
“As much as I grieve for students who have lost a classmate, I also grieve for our teachers at [Alexandria City High School] who continue to work under very challenging conditions because they love what they do and genuinely care for the students,” Wilcox said in the statement. “I am hoping the coming school year will bring some normalcy for them and for students. And I hope that those who make a sport out of criticizing our schools will just think twice before posting that comment on social media that denigrates our administrators, our teachers and our elected School Board members. We can all do better.”
Elnoubi advocated for more conversations in the near future to prevent similar events from occurring down the line.
“We need to come together as a community and a society to address the root causes of violence,” he said. “There are socio-economic factors that are bigger and beyond the reach of the School Board or City Council, but we should use every available tool as policy makers.”