As with the turn of the calendar year, each new school year also begins with hope. On an individual level, students usually have fresh supplies and an outfit or even a new jacket to wear.
The beginning of a school year should arrive with students feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Unfortunately, in Alexandria City Public Schools, particularly the two high school campuses, far too many students have undoubtedly approached this school year with a different emotion – fear – that is not conducive to learning.
There have been many violent incidents in recent years that have either taken place within schools, during school hours or have involved ACPS students. Those range from a student being arrested inside what was then known as T.C. Williams High School for allegedly committing a double murder elsewhere, an accusation of rape, ongoing violent clashes between groups of students that appear to be gang-related and the arrest of a student on school property with a gun.
The violence culminated in May with the murder of an Alexandria City High School student during school hours when a riot erupted in the parking lot outside the McDonald’s in Bradlee Shopping Center. Dozens of students were off ACHS’ two campuses during their lunch break in violation of that school’s stated policy.
It would be reasonable for students and their parents to be asking, “Is this year going to be any better?” – and to be fearful of the answer.
We are at a strange point in time as a nation, a city and a school system. Abuses by some police officers in recent years reached a flashpoint with the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. The aftermath of this tragedy continues to reverberate; police morale and staffing levels in Alexandria have combined with greater distrust of police by Black residents in particular.
Distrust of police played a role in City Council’s decision to remove police officers from ACPS at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. Following a series of violent incidents in the first six weeks of school, the officers were temporarily reinstated. What security will look like in ACPS long-term is still under discussion, which means security measures for the 2022-23 school year are still in flux.
Additionally, the Alexandria Police Department earlier this year declared that ongoing staffing shortages had necessitated a reduction of services from police. The implications of this staffing shortage and policy shift are unclear at this time.
Because Alexandria offered either no or extremely limited in-person learning for more than one full school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, socialization gaps among students, particularly those moving from middle school into high school, may have played a role in the almost daily violence last year within ACPS. That factor, at least, should be somewhat better one year later.
So welcome back to teachers and students. We hope the upcoming school year is one filled with learning and achievement for all students.
But to learn and teach, our schools must be safe. The most important question everyone involved with ACPS – from the interim superintendent to the School Board to City Council to parents, teachers and students – should be asking is, “Are we doing our absolute best to ensure that all students are safe on all ACPS campuses this year?”
All other concerns or goals are secondary to the need for safety.