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Local School Districts, Officials Turn Focus To School Safety Following Parkland Shooting

Community members rallied in Richmond on Saturday, March 24 as part of a March For Our Lives event, calling for more school safety and gun control measures. Megan Pauly/WCVE News

Ever since the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida  - there’s been a heightened level of community concern about school safety.

WCVE’s Megan Pauly has an update on the response of some local school districts, politicians, and others for Learning Curve:

Henrico County Schools recently held a meeting for the community to talk about school safety. Parents and educators expressed a range of concerns including parents John Kwapisz, Michelle Gay and Quanita Lewis.

Kwapisz: Security of access, controlling access into the schools and screening people...

Gay: Making sure the students have a place to report any suspicious activity if they think a student is a threat or they’re concerned about something…

Lewis: Bullying on school busses, and more counselors for elementary students as well was middle and high school students…

Like all Virginia districts – Henrico has a “code blue” emergency policy that isn’t shared with the public.

However, some information was made public during the forum. Safety pamphlets included information about what parents should and shouldn’t do in the event of a lockdown. For example, parents are advised not to drive to the school, where they could interfere with law enforcement’s response.

The booklet also detailed the national incident management system – called NIMS.

Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel says that’s in place at all schools across the country.

Cardounel: And it’s designed to bring all the stakeholders together under one umbrella. So when you’re managing a crisis – when you’re managing a large event – whether it’s a pre-planned event or a natural disaster, you have an incident command system where everyone knows what their roles and responsibilities are.

One big concern is the security at schools’ main entrances - which varies across greater Richmond. Some outer doors are locked. Some schools have metal detectors. In Henrico, all schools have a video surveillance system, which the district demonstrated in a short video.

Video: You have to press a button, somebody should ask you…what is your business here? So once that person is deemed ok to come in – they’re here for legitimate reasons – they allow them in, and tell them they need to go into the front office…

Once guests reach the school’s front office – they log into a visitor management system that’s integrated with all Henrico schools.

Johnson: I think that that’s a best practice here in Henrico, but it’s not necessarily a standard practice across the state.  

That’s Lieutenant Kim Johnson with Henrico Police. She says the software can tell if the visitor is on a state or local sex offender registry. But Johnson says it doesn’t show other criminal history.

Johnson: I know that there’s a lot of talk about what you can do with that type of system: including having it have access to national databases or multi-state databases and not just a statewide database. So there certainly is some talk about that. And of course sometimes technology is more advanced than the laws that govern it.

Chesterfield schools also check guests’ sex offender status. Hanover County’s schools plan to add the system next year and brought on a new full-time safety and security coordinator last July.

Christine Bailor is one of three full-time safety staff in Henrico. She spoke at the district’s safety forum.

Bailor: We are very fortunate in Henrico County when it comes to school safety.

Per state code, safety audits are required – which Bailor says helps provide a necessary layer of oversight and accountability. School-based teams in Henrico conduct the audits on an annual basis. Every third year, the audits are handled by an outside team of area partners.

Bailor: It’s not a gotcha process. It’s a, we’re here…there are 10 or 12 of us, subject matter experts, we’re coming into the school for the day and we want to see how we can help you have a safer school.

Students are also interviewed as part of the audit process.

Bailor: And one of the questions I always ask is: do you feel like you’d know what to do in the event your teacher wasn’t with you in the middle of an emergency? And every one of them says yes.

Bailor says that’s because the district conducts 25 drills a year, ranging from fire and earthquake drills, to evacuation and lockdown exercises.  

She says it’s important to be proactive about safety.

This district is also organizing safety forums specifically for students to address their concerns.

Students rallied March 24 for more school safety. (Megan Pauly)Bailor: We believe that students are the biggest stakeholders that we have in our school system. And we have 51,000 students. It’s very important to us that they’re comfortable with their level of safety. And if they have something to say about school safety, we want to hear it. I think they’re finding their voice right now in school safety and it’s a very exciting time to see them engage.

Students are speaking up both inside and outside of school, including at the March for Our Lives demonstrations in cities across the country. At Richmond’s event, RPS student Deajah Redd said she's lost friends and relatives to gun violence.

Redd: I would hope that we get our locks on the doors fixed so we can actually properly lock our doors and that laws get passed so we can actually feel safe at school. Until then, I guess we’ll have to march and rally and protest until that happens.

Speaking from the steps of the state Capitol, Henrico Senior Maxwell Nardi said they are sending a message to all lawmakers and called legislators out for failure to take action.

Nardi: They haven’t listened. They haven’t made changes. They haven’t passed real reform and they continue to do nothing. Just recently the Virginia House decided that they can create a bill and a discussion on stopping school shootings without even talking about guns? How are we going to do that?

Signs were left outside the Capitol following the rally. (Megan Pauly)As Nardi referenced, last month, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox announced the creation of a school safety committee in response to the Parkland shooting. The state has allocated millions since the Sandy Hook school shooting for Virginia districts to update security equipment. And Cox says he’s committed to funding some of this committee’s recommendations as well.

Cox: Some of the school systems can’t afford some of the measures that we’re obviously going to recommend, so there’s gonna have to be some skin in the game from us as far as money goes, no question about that.

Democratic Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg is on Cox’s committee and was also at Henrico’s public safety forum. He wants to make sure schools balance safety with maintaining a welcoming school environment.

VanValkenburg: Because ultimately at the end of the day, schools are a collaborative, relationship-based place and if kids don’t feel like they can have relationships or be collaborative with their peers, their teachers …you’re not going to be able to fulfill your mission. Safety is a huge piece to that, but we have to make sure we’re getting our safety components right and we’re not negatively impacting how those relationships are built and how that collaboration is done.

He says the committee is just beginning its work and plans to hold its first official meeting later this month. There are other school safety committees getting underway, too.

One is being put together by Virginia’s Education Association – Jim Livingston is president and says his committee plans to meet over the summer and make recommendations by August.

Livingston: We understand that some of the recommendations likely will take some time to implement because of the availability of resources, those types of things. Um, I think first and foremost, we have to reassure our children that we do care about them and that we're willing to take the necessary steps in order to protect them.

Chesterfield County Public Schools is also convening its own school safety task force - to be co-chaired by Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran and Former Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash.

For Learning Curve, I’m Megan Pauly, WCVE News.