Parents raise safety concerns

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Parents raise safety concerns
The ACPS School Board. (File photo)
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By Kassidy McDonald │ [email protected] 

Numerous ACPS parents expressed their distress and concern about violence in Alexandria City Public Schools, and the potential for future gun violence, at a School Board meeting on June 16.

Parents outlined violence prevention policies that they believe the School Board should be enforcing, many of which centered around gun safety. The parents emphasized that local policy, not just national changes, can help keep Alexandria children safe, and urged the School Board to not wait but instead take action for the upcoming 2022-23 school year.

Bridget Shea Westfall, a Moms Demand Action Volunteer and ACPS parent of two, said the School Board and their chapter should work together. She urged the School Board to make changes to the ACPS website to add resources for parents and students about gun violence, making it easier for the community to access.

Westfall also advocated adding safe gun storage information on how to keep firearms away from children in homes where guns are owned on the website for parents to access.

ACPS parent Alexandra Griffin, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years and is a volunteer with Alexandria’s chapter of Moms Demand Action, told the School Board that “these simple actions can truly save lives, and this proclamation is an important part of increasing the safety of all students and educators in Alexandria.”

ACPS parent Missy Estabrook, co-founder of Parents for Safe Alexandria Schools and the incoming President of the Alexandria PTA Council, also urged the School Board to include gun violence prevention policies as well as sharing secure safety practices on the ACPS website.

Estabrook, the mother of 10th and seventh grade boys, wants the School Board to include gun violence prevention policy and safety information in back-to-school packets for the next school year.

“I urge ACPS to provide information on safe gun storage directly to families at the start of each school year in a widely accessible, multi-lingual format, as well as
to add gun violence prevention information and resources to the ACPS website,” said Estabrook.

In addition to the local changes, Griffin suggested the School Board join Alexandria’s Moms Demand Action chapter to urge Congress to pass legislation that would require background checks on all sales, as well as red flag laws and to ban the sale of military style assault weapons.

Griffin spoke of statistics from Everytown for gun safety. “According to ET Research, between 2009-2020 the 10 mass shooting incidents with the most casualties all involved the use of a firearm equipped with a high-capacity magazine, an assault weapon, or both,” said Griffin.

Students are also calling for the School Board to proactively address gun violence this year. Emily Milton, a student representative to the School Board last year who will be serving again this upcoming school year, made it clear this issue needs to be addressed.

“I personally support statements and suggestions made regarding gun violence prevention and hope that the Board can make it a top priority in the 2022 to 2023 school year,” Milton said.

The meeting was held just six days after ACPS Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D. announced his resignation effective Aug. 31, and three days following a joint meeting of City Council and the School Board, in which a plan to address school violence was discussed. Hutchings did not attend either the June 13 or June 16 meetings.

Debbie Ash, an ACPS grandparent and former candidate for School Board, said she is displeased with Hutchings’ resignation and of the Board’s treatment of parents.

Ash made a comment about Hutchings removing his own child from the ACPS school system and placing them in a private school during COVID-19 lockdowns and virtual learning.

Board Chair Meagan Alderton, whose children also attend private school, stopped Ash mid-sentence.

“I am going to stop you right there. We do not talk about other people’s children in public comment,” Alderton said.

In written comments to the School Board, community member Richard Merritt reminded members of a Resolution on Gun Safety that was adopted by the Public Health Advisory Commission at its meeting on Feb. 17, 2022.

The resolution was made by the Public Health Advisory Commission of Alexandria in response to a press release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that stated car accidents were no longer the leading cause of death for children – firearm injuries are.

The resolution addresses possible strategies created by the Public Health Advisory Commission to combat gun violence. Some of the suggestions include distributing gun locks to all interested gun owners, encouraging health providers to inquire of patients whether guns in the home are kept safe and to sponsor a “Proud to be Gun- free” campaign where businesses in the city encourage gun owners to leave their guns at home.

The purpose of the resolution is to encourage the city and School Board to work together “in order to avoid circumstances of death, injury and family or community trauma.”

Allyson McKowen and her son, a Minnie Howard student, also made public comments about more generalized violence that occurs in the ACPS system and their personal experiences with it.

While they didn’t speak specifically about gun violence, the mother-son duo talked about how violence is generalized in the school system, and nothing is being done about it.

Recently, a 16-year-old ACPS student was arrested and charged with murder after allegedly killing Luis Mejia Hernandez at Bradlee Shopping Center, while back in October 2021 a multi-assailant sexual assault allegedly took place on the Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School.

The increase in school-wide violence is of utmost concern to ACPS parents, McKowen said. She told the School Board her son has been attacked more than once on school grounds.

“Students in ACPS have been bullied, harassed, assaulted, raped, shot, stabbed and killed this year on school grounds and/or during school hours, when parents and families are supposed to be able to trust that they are safe,” said McKowen.

Her son also spoke in front of the School Board. He was not finished
with his speech about school safety when the three minute time constraint ended, but as he walked away from the podium he said, “Please help us.”

While School Board members did not interact with parents during the public comments, the Board did discuss a scheduled agenda item involving safety concerns with school visitor policies.

During the Equity Audit of School Board Policies, Board Vice Chair Jacinta Greene said ACPS should take a harder look at visitor policy and possibly become more specific in detailing who can visit the school because of the environment that they are in now.

“Yes we want to be welcoming, but yes we always want to air on the side of safety, particularly with things that have happened in this school year,” Greene said.

ACPS did not respond in time for the Times’ print deadline to a request for comment on the current status of the system’s gun violence safety plans for the 2022-23 school year.

Update 6/24/22: Alexandria City School Board Chair Meagan L. Alderton responded to request for comment and said, “In keeping with the recent passage of our Gun Safety Resolution, our communications team plans to highlight Parents for Safe Alexandria Schools and share their information resources on gun safety, including information about the Safe Storage Initiative and the Be SMART Campaign, in our monthly “Partner Spotlight” column in the Aug. 12, 2022 Back-to-School edition of the ACPS Express newsletter. The newsletter column is available in English, Spanish, Arabic and Amharic, and will be distributed via social media and promoted on the ACPS website as well.”

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