As Loudoun County students plan to join nationwide walkouts over the gun-control issue and the Florida Valentine’s Day shootings spark massive debate, officials are figuring out how to respond.
School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) wrote in a Facebook post Feb. 26 that he received more than 35,000 emails, text messages, calls and other forms of communication on the issue. Much of it came after earlier statements in which he called for “firm disciplinary action for students and staff who participate” in walkouts.
DeKenipp charged that some staff members were “not only encouraging truant behavior, but cheering students on as these conduct violations are occurring.” He later said that solutions “can be achieved through constructive and very organized dialogue,” and asked people who wanted to participate to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Bipartisan Solutions” in the subject line.
Responses varied from parents who said they would join their children and it should be part of a lesson in applying the First Amendment, to those who saw walkouts as insubordination that should be squashed. At least one called for teachers and other staff members to be allowed to carry guns in schools.
Students in Seneca Ridge Middle School in Sterling and others are among those planning to walk out on March 14 to protest gun violence, as part of national protests organized by the Women’s March youth group, Empower. Walkouts are also planned April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.
Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said that when a walkout occurred last year over the federal ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, the consequence at most schools was an unexcused absence and students had to make up the work. She said she was discussing with staff to ensure that the “guidelines are clear and consistently applied across the county.”
On Feb. 27, several residents addressed the issue before the School Board. One speaker opposed arming teachers, while another called for private armed security guards in schools and resource officers in elementary schools.
Donna Colombo, president-elect of the Virginia PTA and parent of a junior at Stone Bridge High in Ashburn, said that officials need to thoroughly review and update policies that ensure the safety of students, staff and visitors.
“A call to action is being heard through our students’ voices,” she said. “And I hope that through family engagement, family involvement and our school programs and advocacy on behalf of our children, we will change through different avenues. Those avenues must be in safety, mental health and working collaboratively with counties across the Commonwealth to ensure a safe learning environment.”
The district has spent millions of dollars to enhance security measures in recent years, said Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles). A new system of screening visitors was installed last summer at all Loudoun schools. More security staff has been added as well as additional psychologists and counselors in high schools. The fiscal 2019 budget calls for additional psychologists and counselors in middle schools.
“Early intervention is vital when addressing mental health,” Morse said.
In addition, voters passed a bond issue in November that allocates up to $11.5 million for electronic access locks on exterior doors and new security systems at 60 schools, starting in 2020. “We have been and will continue to be proactive in keeping our school community as safe as possible,” Morse said.
On March 13, the board plans to conduct a special workshop on district-wide security efforts.