Local school board candidates weigh in on FCPS safety and security issues
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is putting an increased focus on school safety and security. At a May 8 community conversation at South Lakes High School in Reston, FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid and Tom Vacarello, director of FCPS’ Office of Safety and Security, briefed community members on existing safety measures and programs, the ongoing system-wide security review by an outside consultant, as well as some new technologies being piloted at county schools. Some of those technologies, which include weapons screening systems, front office panic alarms and vape detecting devices, are being tested in schools in the Mount Vernon District, confirmed Karen Corbett Sanders, the current Mount Vernon District representative to the Fairfax County School Board who is retiring later this year. On the MoVe recently asked the three candidates running for the Mount Vernon District seat for their thoughts on various safety and security issues. Following are some of the comments from Mateo Dunne, Harold Sims Jr. and Stori Zimmerman.
On restroom safety at local schools
Dunne: I have learned from my conversations with students, families, teachers and school administrators, to include the principals at South County HS, Mount Vernon HS and West Potomac HS. At elementary schools, there are limited issues with restrooms. Most elementary schools have a buddy policy, where students visit the bathrooms in pairs. At middle schools and high schools, some principals have requested additional support to ensure students do not engage in inappropriate activities in the restrooms. I met with the Superintendent and emphasized the importance of this issue to every student and family. She committed to work with principals to increase resources dedicated to monitoring hallways and restrooms, to include a greater presence of staff in the hallways, more video cameras in hallways near bathrooms, and possibly vape detectors.
Sims: The safety of students, teachers and staff is an absolute priority. It will remain safe for students to use restrooms so long as we remain committed to adopting and enforcing security practices, policies and procedures.
Zimmerman: In general, the bathrooms [at Carl Sandburg MS] are not well monitored. Students smoke/vape in the bathrooms, and fights break out in the bathrooms. Even though the custodial staff try to keep the bathrooms well-maintained, the students do not, which goes back to the lack of monitoring. There are some mitigation strategies, such as vape/smoke monitors that link to phone apps to alert staff when someone might be using the bathroom as a "smoke” room, which I believe are possible upcoming agenda considerations for FCPS. Installing these monitors would be a good start in the right direction to help with maintaining the bathrooms in all our schools, as well as a focus from school leadership to physically monitor the bathrooms.
On whether School Resource Officers (SROs) should be employed/armed at all schools
Dunne: My starting point is to listen to the community. Based on my conversations with students, parents, teachers and school administrators, the consensus is clear: there is no need for SROs at elementary schools, although I support the budget proposal to increase school security personnel. Recognizing the concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline, I have heard from staff and community members that they recognize that SROs play an essential role at middle schools and high schools. It was with this in mind that I played a leading role in revising the SRO MOU [memorandum of understanding] which clarified the roles and responsibilities for SROs and school administrators in school discipline. Progress has been made, but I would like to see an increased training on neurodiversity, de-escalation, and implicit bias. I strongly oppose Republican efforts to arm teachers and school administrators. However, SROs, as employees of the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD), are licensed and trained to carry a firearm as part of their standard issue equipment.
Sims: I think that it would be beneficial to have professionally trained Armed Uniformed School Resource Officers at all FCPS schools. In an effort to keep schools safe, Uniformed School Resource Officers significantly reduce the ability, opportunity and desire for criminal acts against public schools. It is vital, however, that their role as a resource is understood by students, teachers, staff and administrators. School Resource Officers should not be utilized for the enforcement of minor delinquent acts more suitable for school security and administrators. There is a great opportunity for School Resource Officers to establish community trust, serving as mentors to students. This has been memorialized in the current School and Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) between FCPS and FCPD, which I support.
Zimmerman: Yes, SROs should be employed and armed at all Fairfax County schools. In speaking with parents and staff, many have said that when it comes to school safety and security it seems that FCPS has adopted a “strategy of hope” – as in, “We hope it won’t be our school next time, our kids.” If you look at the recent school shooting incident in Nashville, the call for help went out at 10:13 a.m. local time, and the shooter was neutralized by 10:27 a.m. In those 14 minutes, a call went out to police, and they arrived, located and took down the shooter; however, the shooter was still able to discharge 152 rounds, killing three children and three adults. Fourteen minutes is too much time for any parent, teacher, student, staff member to wait for help to arrive. Having trained, armed SROs on school grounds would not only erase the time between call to take down, but would also act as a deterrent. The Nashville shooter indicated that there were other potential targets; however, due to the presence of armed security, the shooter decided on a softer target with no armed personnel present.
Whether legislation should be passed enabling teachers to carry firearms
Dunne: No. I strongly oppose Republican efforts to arm teachers and school administrators. The evidence is clear: more guns only result in more gun violence, by accidents, suicide or homicide.
Sims: No, I would not support enacting this legislation.
Zimmerman: I would like our teachers to be able to focus on teaching in our schools and leave the armed protection to those SROs/police officers that go through intense and rigorous training to deal with any security and safety issues that may arise.
On additional legislation that would improve school safety/security:
Dunne: As a starting point, the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia should ban the ownership, sale and distribution of weapons, ammunition and accessories designed for the battlefield. School safety and security is not limited to random gun violence. The ongoing mental crisis and the increasing prevalence of substance abuse disorders, to include opioids, affect thousands of students across Fairfax County. In the wake of the global pandemic and amidst the pressures caused by social media, students must be provided with greater mental and behavioral health support. I will advocate for FCPS to increase the number of social workers and psychologists to the nationally recommended ratios, so our students have in-school access to professionals with the necessary training and resources. I will also advocate to establish as a legislative priority increased access to treatment for students with substance abuse disorders. Too many students are addicted to opioids, and once addicted, they have nowhere to turn for treatment due to the insufficient number of beds in public health facilities. We need to work with the state and county to ensure our students and families have multiple options for treatment.
Sims: Additional funding for school safety and security.
Zimmerman: There are many things that can be done; however, first and foremost we need a School Board and Superintendent that will support the 2022 Virginia Department of Education Model Guidelines. On the state level, the Virginia Code (§ 22.1-279.3:1) regarding reports of certain acts to school authorities, which was modified in 2020 by House Bill 257 (Mullen, Hudson, Simonds, Guzman, Keam, Lopez) and Senate Bill 729 (McLellan/Mason), changed the existing required reporting of criminal offenses to required reporting of only felonies. This small but significant change puts a huge burden on our principals, teachers and staff who must now, on top of everything else, be well-versed in federal and Virginia criminal law. We need our teachers to be able to get back to educating and our students to get back to learning.