By Amy Will | [email protected]
“You can’t put a price on the safety of our students.”
Those emotional words of support from Alexandria City School Board member Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi were echoed by his peers last week as the board approved the launch of a weapons detection pilot program in Alexandria City Public Schools.
The unanimous vote comes on the heels of a stakeholder survey taken by more than 4,000 members of the ACPS community: students, parents, guardians, staff and community members all responded to the survey.
ACPS facilities and operations director Alicia Hart explained the process to implement the weapons detection pilot program, in which students and school staff could be screened daily upon entry as early as May.
“The next step is for Alexandria City Public Schools to procure the equipment and then to implement this pilot program at the Alexandria City High School King Street and Minnie Howard campuses, George Washington Middle School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School,” Hart said.
This move by the School Board comes on the heels of a series of high profile violent incidents and weapons possession involving students in recent years. Most recently, a 14 year-old student was charged with possession of a firearm after bringing an unloaded handgun to the Minnie Howard campus earlier this month.
That incident followed on the heels of a large brawl in December 2022 in which an administrator was knocked to the ground. Last May, an ACHS student died after being stabbed by another student. Though that tragedy took place off-campus, outside the McDonald’s at Bradlee Shopping Center, it happened during school hours.
According to a safety study released by ACPS in February, fifteen cases involving weapons on school property were reported between the months of August and December of last year. Weapons listed during the reporting period included knives, brass knuckles, stun guns and BB guns.
“Bottom line, this is the right thing to do and a long time coming,” Molly Kaiman, a mother of two ACPS high school students, said.
Referencing recent incidents of gun violence and other issues compromising the safety of the school community, Kaiman said she believes the screening system is a wake-up call for ACPS parents who “don’t know how brutal it is.”
“It is the school’s responsibility to provide kids with a safe learning space,” Kaiman added.
Of those who participated in the survey, most agree with Kaiman, as 85% of respondents voted in favor of having the devices in all or some of their schools, according to survey results presented at the March 16 school board meeting.
Parents and guardians of ACPS students had the highest response rate at 52%. Parents and advocacy groups have been voicing the need for a boost in safety measures for years, but not all community members agree this is the solution. Roughly 15% of those surveyed were opposed to the pilot program.
Elnoubi’s passionate comparison of price to safety referred to the percentage of those in the opposed group who were mainly concerned with the impact on the budget. About 32% of those who said they were against the program in the survey cited the cost of the technology itself and 25% were concerned with the need for additional staff.
The prices for weapons detection devices vary. Affixed screening devices could cost an estimated $60,000 and their mobile counterparts avErage $13,000. The combination of the two state-of-the-art technologies will be used in all chosen pilot schools to allow the facilities a more flexible screening process.
These devices will be installed in the entryways of the buildings, requiring everyone to walk through them before entering. The screening process would be like that of a stadium or larger venue where positive alerts would result in a more thorough screening.
School board member Willie Bailey addressed the concerns regarding expense and voiced his support of the program.
“The entire city needs to understand it is about the safety of their kids, not about
aesthetics, not what it looks like, not what it costs,” Bailey said.
When asked about concerns raised by those opposed to the pilot, Elnoubi said as a decision maker, he takes his responsibility seriously.
“We’re supposed to be doing everything we can, so the appearance, everything is a tradeoff,” Elnoubi said.
Now that the collective efforts of parent and community advocates led the School Board to approve the pilot program, the focus is shifting to its implementation and operation in a way that is nonthreatening. “We want to make sure that all students feel welcomed and can thrive in a safe and healthy learning environment,” Hart said.
School board member Ashley Simpson-Baird said although she has supported the program from the beginning, the initial decision to move forward was not easy.
“It was a difficult realization to come to, having to admit that our schools aren’t safe,” Simpson-Baird said.
Simpson-Baird noted that 59% of respondents who opposed the devices in all or some
ACPS schools believed that weapons detection equipment in schools would make some students feel unwelcome. Although the idea of the detectors may seem intimidating to some, Simpson-Baird said she believes there are steps that can be taken to ensure everyone, especially students, feels more comfortable.
“It’s important that students are heard and they have a voice in their school environment, Simpson-Baird said. She suggested schools consider holding facilitated discussions to encourage students to talk about the program and share their concerns.
Hart said those involved in the implementation of the program are already discussing creative ways to introduce the equipment to students, such as placing the logo, school mascot and/or school colors on the weapons abatement system.
When asked about the aesthetic changes, Kaiman said they would not impact her children.
“We go to concerts, sporting events, we walk right through the weapons detection systems and think nothing of it,” Kaiman said.
Hart said there is no specific timeline for the installation of detectors in all ACPS schools.
“At the conclusion of the pilot period, more discussion will be held with the school board to determine if a division-wide rollout will occur,” Hart said.
Kaiman is confident that with the screening process in place, sending her children off to school will get a little easier each morning.
“Hopefully it’s going to do what it’s meant to do,” Kaiman said.