By Liana Hardy | [email protected]
Amid pressure from concerned parents, Alexandria City Public Schools officials have increased security at school campuses by adding new measures to prevent a repeat of the violence from the 2021-22 school year.
Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., whose last day with the district was yesterday, announced that ACPS will now require students and staff to have an identification card present at all times. Additional school security officers are also in place to keep students from leaving campus without permission.
These new measures for the 2022-2023 academic year apply to ACPS middle and high schools, and Alexandria City High School will implement a new staggered dismissal process to prevent students from congregating outside of the school. Hutchings also said ACPS officials will continue to make sure every school is a “closed campus,” meaning that students are not allowed to come and go without permission, including during lunch time.
ACPS staff is committed to ensuring that all students feel safe at school, according to Alicia Hart, the chief of facilities and operations at ACPS.
“Our schools remain safe spaces. Safety and security is a top priority for ACPS and our commitment to safety can be noted in our most recent update regarding safety processes and student wellness measures,” Hart said.
Conversations about school safety increased after ACHS student Luis Mejia Hernandez, 18, was fatally stabbed by another ACHS student during lunch time on May 24 following a fight between a large group of students at the Bradlee Shopping Center. ACPS was supposed to be maintaining a closed campus policy during the time.
A March school safety report also revealed more violent incidents at the schools: 18 students were arrested, 41 fights or assaults were reported and 13 weapons were seized, including a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons and pepper spray, between August and December 2021. The report stated that 71 incidents occurred at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, 59 incidents at ACHS, 49 incidents at elementary schools and 12 incidents at K-8 schools.
School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi said that while he recognizes parents’ concerns about school safety this year, he believes that ACPS staff will effectively enforce the new measures and keep parents informed.
“Look, I get it, I’m an ACPS parent myself, and I want to know that ACPS is doing everything they can do to keep my child and each ACPS student safe, especially when there’s a threat or incident,” Elnoubi said. “So clear and transparent communications is critical to making parents feel safe.”
Katy Matthews, president of the ACHS Parent Teacher Advisory Council, said that she believes the new security measures are already being properly enforced; when she picked up her son from the high school for a doctor’s appointment, she had to call school security officers before meeting her son outside, and the officers required a doctor’s note for her son to get back in.
“I actually just experienced the campus. I had to pick up my son for a doctor’s appointment, and it seemed to go very smoothly. I was not allowed in the building,” Matthews said. “I am an adult that does not work, [am] not a child that goes to that school, and so I’m not allowed in that building.”
However, the Times observed that about a dozen high school-aged students with backpacks still gathered at the Bradlee Shopping Center during lunch time on Tuesday – despite the closed campus policy – with most congregating at the McDonalds and using the DASH bus to get back and forth from the high school campus.
ACPS parent René Islas, who has met with a community group of parents dedicated to school safety in July, also said that students have reported that some long-term substitute teachers have not shown up for the first few days of school, which poses a safety risk for students.
Islas worked with the community group to release a survey about school safety in May. According to the 179 responses, 83% of parents were very concerned or somewhat concerned about school safety, and more than 61% of parents felt their children were unsafe. Islas also noted that ACPS’ 2021-22 equity climate survey found that student feelings of safety declined between 2021 and 2022, with only 58% of students reporting that they felt safe in 2022.
“What we found out is that people did not think their kids were safe last year. They had trouble feeling like the police were being called, there were a lot of reports of violence in the schools,” Islas said.
However, Islas is hopeful that ACPS will continue to respond to community demands and better enforce their safety rules.
“So far, so good, but it’s only one week. And I think the reaction to that, to those measures that were announced, was that those things should have been done in the first place. … If they would have done them last year, and more effectively, then maybe some of those issues might have been prevented,” Islas said.
Many parents also expressed relief that School Resource Officers would be maintained on some high school and middle school campuses; ACPS has two SROs at ACHS, one SRO at the Minnie Howard Campus of ACHS and one SRO at George Washington Middle School.
Although City Council voted to remove SROs from schools in June 2021, they reversed their decision in October 2021 following reports of violent incidents at several schools. According to Matthews, many parents feel more at ease now that the SROs are back in the building.
“Many of our families were happy with that. And that’s kind of where that centered, was having those SROs around. We knew our families supported them and they were part of our community … And so when you take them away, you’re taking part of the community and how everything works,” Matthews said.
SROs do not enforce the ACPS student code of conduct, which means they will not enforce the new security measures, including the ID policy and the closed campus policy – these policies are enforced by ACPS staff, according to Hart. The Alexandria Police Department’s School Resource Unit webpage states that they deal with school policy, along with students with emotional and educational issues, laws of search, seizure and arrest on school grounds and other related issues.
ACPS officials want to ensure that SROs are not overly involved with school discipline matters, according to Matthew McLaughlin, an ACPS parent who is a member of the School Law Enforcement Partnership, a group that includes selected parents, ACPS officials, APD officials and other community leaders.
“It is good practice that you can see across the country that uniformed law enforcement officers are not to be involved in school discipline,” McLaughlin said. “Certainly if there’s a law enforcement case they’ll get involved in that and they have other activities that they can do, but if a teacher asks an officer to get involved with just regular school discipline, the officer should say ‘No.’ And that is the best practice, that is ACPS policy.”
But parents and community members still want ACPS to do more, such as increase school personnel – both teachers and mental health professionals – and provide more transparency and timely reports on incidents. Islas said he also wants schools to be more serious about implementing disciplinary consequences in general.
“I think the biggest thing is that they need some accountability for everybody – things like making sure that both the children and the leaders in the schools are held accountable,” Islas said. “I know there is an avoidance of things like suspension and those more serious consequences, but in some cases, it was appropriate. And when things rise to criminal activity, it is important in order to maintain safety and to send the message to the students that the school is serious about enforcing rules.”
Alexandria PTAC President Missy Estabrook also emphasized the need for better communication and additional security personnel, though she is optimistic that ACPS will help keep students safe this year.
“Students can’t learn – and teachers can’t teach – if they don’t feel safe and supported in their buildings,” Estabrook said. “Our hope is that ACPS will ensure transparent communications about safety incidents, communicate robustly on efforts to mitigate risk, maintain school resource officers, and increase personnel in schools to address the underlying causes of violence.”