Agenda Alexandria hosts safety panel

Agenda Alexandria hosts safety panel
Former ACPS Superintendent Herb Berg and Alexandria Police Chief Don Hayes discussed how ACPS' approach to school safety has changed over the years.

By Olivia Anderson |

To ring in its 2022-2023 season, Agenda Alexandria hosted a program on Monday night at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial that explored all things safety, discipline and wellness in regard to the historic and current practices of Alexandria City Public Schools.

The program, called “Are The Kids Alright?,” was moderated by journalist Michael Pope and included a panel that featured Herb Berg, former ACPS superintendent from 1995 to 2001; Julie Crawford, ACPS chief of student services and equity; M. René Islas, ACPS parent and founder of a grassroots group aiming to improve ACPS safety; and Don Hayes, Alexandria chief of police.

Panelists took turns speaking and offering clarity around ACPS safety issues such as disciplinary options utilized within classrooms and by school principals, bullying, programs for students with special needs, mental health intervention, the ACPS and Alexandria Police Department memorandum of understanding, the School Law Enforcement Partnership, security guards in schools and restrictions on students leaving campus during school hours.

Pope kicked off the event by recalling a July 1996 incident in which a 16-year-old gang member was jumped and stabbed by another gang member and later died. He asked Berg, who was the superintendent at the time, to describe the community response.

According to Berg, the incident was “devastating” to faculty, students and community members, as well as a very rare event. When asked if the school system back then was distracted from student learning with security concerns, Berg said the issue of school security in schools is different in 1996 compared to now.

“The whole issue of security in a school is different today. We’ve had shootings and all kinds of things around the country that had not happened at that point in America,” Berg said. “So, a single gang thing was different. Nowadays it’s on the news every night, all kinds of news cycles.”

In December 2021, a 14-year-old ACPS student was arrested for a sexual assault on the Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School that occurred in October 2021. ACPS did not notify parents of the alleged assault at the time. Then, earlier this year, an Alexandria City High School student died in a fatal stabbing incident at the Bradlee Shopping Center McDonald’s that took place during ACHS’ lunch hour.

In response to the recent incidents, Hayes said during Monday’s program that APD has increased its presence in certain areas almost twofold. Two officers patrol Bradlee Shopping Center on a daily basis during school hours, and school resource officers have been reinstated, including an officer who patrols the outside of ACHS during school hours.

“We are increasing our presence, we are increasing our partnerships with the shopping center up there, but also with the school personnel,” Hayes said.

Berg interjected at one point to state that one officer, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, was assigned to several thousand kids when he was superintendent, noting the marked rise in police presence over the past 25 years. Hayes agreed and stated that the recent uptick in gun violence has caused fear in parents and students. The increased police presence, he said, serves to both quell the anxiety and act as a safeguard “because of the potential for what could happen.”

Another topic the panel tackled was substance abuse intervention and prevention, which Crawford said has been an ongoing conversation between ACPS and the city for many years. For instance, several years ago ACPS brought on board a substance abuse counselor and the city created an opioid work group. More recently, the city has experienced an increase in substance abuse – likely due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, Crawford said.

She emphasized that ACPS is working closely with the Alexandria Health Department and the city to track trends and expand substance abuse intervention services. This includes adding Narcan, or naloxone, to school buildings and creating an anonymous tip line for anyone with drug-related concerns.

“I would say we do have a fentanyl crisis in the city, as evidenced by the opioid work group,” Crawford said. “ … We know that many things that students may think are not as harmful … [are] more likely to be laced with fentanyl now.”

Audience members submitted questions that Pope read to panelists, one of which asked about APD’s investigations into drug-related offenses and subsequent arrests at ACHS. Hayes clarified that APD does in fact investigate school crimes that are brought to their attention and make quarterly reports that are available to school officials.

APD does not, however, meddle with disciplinary actions following a crime, he emphasized.

“If it’s not a crime, we don’t get involved in it,” Hayes said.

The panel also discussed the difference between a tough-on-crime and a restorative justice mindset. Crawford advocated the importance of diversion programs, drug courts and restorative philosophy, arguing that officials should ask themselves what they’re doing to actively try and mitigate future repeat offenses. Examples might include anger management or problem-solving programs, so if the situation arises again, students possess the tools to make different decisions.

“[Being restorative] doesn’t do away with the discipline action if it is a significant incident, but we’re trying to change the path of what we do as opposed to just suspending and returning to school without any intervention, because that is not successful,” Crawford said. “Zero tolerance policies from discipline have not been shown to be successful.”

However, Islas had a slightly different take. He highlighted the importance of taking preemptive steps to care for students’ well-being and emotional needs in order to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place.

He also contended that many students who commit crimes should enter the juvenile justice system, which he said provides many reformative measures.

“It might be appropriate to have those students go through the juvenile justice system to get the support that they need to return to society,” Islas said. “I’m not saying, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key, but if there is an attempted murder, if there is an attempted mob attack, or an actual mob attack, if there are physical beatings of other students, that needs to be taken care of not just by immediate talk therapy but talk therapy plus real accountability for those students.”

Islas has previously expressed interest in creating a new victim’s advocate office, which would place a priority on victims of crimes – rather than the perpetrator – and help connect them with access to mental health services and protective orders.

On the subject of gang and crew presence, Hayes said both groups very much exist not only in the school system, but also around neighborhoods. Modern gangs are significantly more formalized and organized than gangs in the 1990s, he said, and use intelligence to “make sure that they try to stay one step ahead of what we’re doing to try to catch them.”

Berg recalled that in the 90s, ACPS made an effort following the stabbing to raise gang awareness and mitigate crimes. But he also said gangs were simpler then and have greatly evolved over the years.

“We were after junior high school kids and others, [saying] that they couldn’t wear a red bandana or a red patch in their pocket. [It’s like] when chewing gum was an issue in the school. That’s how the gang thing was in my time here,” Berg said. “Today, they’re sophisticated. There’s guns, there’s knives, there’s communication devices, they’re organized. It wasn’t quite like that in the old days.”

The panel discussed other topics, such as how to handle troubled students in classrooms and COVID-19’s lingering effects. All speakers also delivered a closing statement to finish off the program, wherein each had the opportunity to share overall thoughts and what they hoped the audience would take away.

In his closing statement, Berg called for the urgent prioritization of improving student learning, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic. He cautioned against hiring first, second, third and fourth year teachers in order to strengthen ACPS, which he called an “emergency room educational system.”

“With the loss of two years of education, it is a genuine crisis. I think the City Council and the mayor needs to be asking for a meeting with the City School Board and the superintendent, and the best minds in the city put their arms around this issue,” Berg said. “These kids have lost an education, and you’re not going to be able to make it up if you don’t make it the number one priority.”