The brief walkout demonstration by over 300 George Mason High School students and more from Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School Wednesday, in solidarity with thousands of fellow students nationwide on the one-month anniversary of the killings at Parkland, Florida, underscored the student security issues in Falls Church reflective of concerns in the entire U.S.
School security has come under national scrutiny in light of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland that left 17 students and staff dead, wounding 16 others. Falls Church City Public Schools are no exception, especially after George Mason High School experienced its second scare in four months when a student was arrested on March 5 following the discovery of a note that detailed a plan to harm people at the school.
From administrators to students to the City of Falls Church police, everyone is assessing ways to improve protective measures. Mason students, whose presumption of safety is the bedrock of their education, hold varying views on how their well-being is ensured following the atrocity in Florida.
“Specifically at [Mason], I do feel safe,” said Nathan Holmes, student representative to Falls Church City School Board, before junior class treasurer Rebecca Hagigh added. “Obviously after shootings such as Parkland I might be slightly on-edge, but day-to-day I don’t feel unsafe being at school.”
“I don’t feel safe. The combination of having the threat at Mason and the shooting in Parkland mostly contributed to this,” said Erin Dean, a staff writer at Mason’s student newspaper, The Lasso, who penned an article on school security a week before the Florida shooting took place. “With the threat at my school, I kinda brushed it off because it never became anything…but after the Parkland shooting…it really put things into perspective and I realized that my school could be next.”
Even with the differing perceptions of safety, all Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS) schools do employ physical security features as well as promote a culture that instructs staff and students to be skeptical about irregular faces on campus.
According to FCCPS Superintendent Peter Noonan, all city schools have access controls at every entrance that require a person to either swipe themselves in or be let in from the inside. There is also a master switch in each school’s front office that can lock all outside doors simultaneously. Along with that, Securitas private security guards are stationed in every campus and patrol the perimeter, over 200 cameras are located across all FCCPS schools with surveillance accessible by phone and to the police and lockdown drills are practiced at least once a semester that emphasize swift entry and exit of the building in case of emergencies.
When it comes to the new high school currently in the planning phase, these hard security features will be transferred over in addition to new architectural elements that enable transparency in the school’s layout, including taller ceilings, more windows and fewer winding hallways and entrances into the building.
In general, students support the ideas about building security through architecture, though Holmes was dubious about more windows being a positive since the Parkland shooter targeted students through classroom windows during his spree. Dean also mentioned that ensuring doors stay locked throughout the school day is a must since she notices some doors are always open. Furthermore, Holmes supported Securitas guards receiving firearms training and being allowed to carry concealed weapons, while Dean preferred they be armed with a taser at most and Hagigh felt that only Mason’s School Resource Officer (SRO), Clarke Gagnon, should be armed.
Dean and Holmes were also in favor of metal detectors; Hagigh was not. Hagigh and Holmes questioned how effective a lockdown procedure would be at stalling an active shooter, while Dean thought it could work if done correctly. However, classrooms are hit-or-miss when it comes to how seriously these drills are taken, as noted in Dean’s Lasso article and by the students who were interviewed.
Noonan is confident the school’s emergency plans would be able to get students to safety in case an active shooter entered campus and doesn’t anticipate any overhaul to their current procedures. In terms of hard security measures, Noonan is not in favor of installing metal detectors or bringing more guns on to school campuses in the form of arming Securitas guards. To him, the culture in the schools and throughout the City where solid relationships between students, staff and the broader community help identify distressed individuals is the best line of defense. Although Noonan’s also wary of letting Falls Church’s comforting atmosphere dull FCCPS’ preparation for danger.
“What keeps me up at night is we can have the very best security in place and the tightest-knit community, but if someone wants to hurt us, someone can hurt us,” Noonan said. “Our job is to make sure we train around the event that the worst thing possible could happen.”
Police response is expected when danger does arrive, but that notion has been challenged following the response from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office — the jurisdiction where the Parkland shooting took place. Recent reports indicate that police officers were told to establish a perimeter instead of enter the school and neutralize the assailant, mainly because they were unaware of whether the shooter was still inside the school. The confusion surrounding the shooter’s presence was due to a 20-minute tape delay on the school’s own camera system as well as poor radio transmission. In the aftermath of the shooting, the school’s deputy resigned and the entire sheriff’s department may be subject to a federal investigation.
City of Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin would not weigh in for the News-Press on Broward County’s handling of the situation until the after action report was made available, though she did state that she would fully expect any officer, including Gagnon, Mason’s SRO, to engage any threat on a school’s campus head-on. Gavin also supports stationing more SRO’s in other City schools, but budget constraints limit that option at this time.
“[Officers] are trained to handle threats,” Gavin said. “If there is an officer on campus, they need to go in and address the threat.”
Detecting troubled denizens before they can become a danger to captive populations, especially schools, is the preferred course of action. Back in December, Mason had its first scare after a student was arrested and received a felony charge for making threats to bomb and/or damage a building after multiple students heard him openly discussing a plan to bring weapons and explosives onto campus with intent to harm students and teachers. Despite credible witness testimonies and evidence brought forward during his trial, the defendant was found not guilty since his intent could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Gavin assures that even without a guilty verdict, the trial put the defendant on notice. And due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FCCPS cannot disclose whether this student is still a part of this school system or not. But City police’s hasty investigation into the defendant is a good sign that the department did its due diligence – just as it did in the most recent incident – compared to the dozens of reports about Parkland’s shooter that were ignored.
For now, Mason students are finding their own ways into the conversation on gun violence. Hundreds of FCCPS students from Thomas Jefferson Elementary to Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School and Mason participated in a national walkout to demand gun control yesterday morning. A collection of other students have started a group known as Students Demand Action which talks about gun safety with other schools.
Regarding the three students interviewed for this story, they all have different insights into what should be done. Dean believes gun control laws should be passed in order to re-establish the sense of safety students require first and foremost. Hagigh also prefers tighter gun control legislation, but understands the role guns have played in American culture and history and doesn’t want to alienate rural citizens who view guns differently than urbanites. Holmes doesn’t see gun control as a catch-all solution since violence will be carried out by people no matter what. He simply wonders when schools will be given the same protective treatment as legislators and celebrities alike.