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Officials hold forum addressing school security measures in wake of Newtown, Conn., shooting

by Gregg MacDonald

Staff Writer

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, Fairfax County Police and Fairfax County Schools officials say they are doing their part to keep kids safe.

On Wednesday, officials from both agencies held a public forum addressing school security measures and allowing concerned parents to ask questions.

“School safety is of interest to us all,” said Police Captain Ed O’Carroll, who kicked off the forum by introducing Lou Munoz, Westfield High’s School Resource Officer.

“With 3,000 students, Westfield is like a city in and of itself. A big city,” Munoz told those in attendance.

According to Munoz, technology-enabled teens are the root of many issues within schools.

“Thefts of high-priced phones, iPods and tablets are the number one problem I see,” he said. “Those same items also aid in allowing students to spread rumors, bully one another and to be able to ‘sext.’”

According to Munoz, although many of these actions occur after school, fights can occur at schools the next day as a result.

“When kids are using Twitter and other social media, they are not saying things like ‘Oh, Sally looks so nice today,’ instead they are all just trashing each other or trying to coerce other teens to send them naked photos. Both those actions can have bad consequences at school the next day.”

Munoz is one of 54 SROs around the county — all trained and armed Fairfax County police officers — who are placed in each middle and high school, according to Jim McClain of the FCPS office of Safety and Security.

“Fairfax County Public Schools is a massive organization,” McClain said. “It has 180,000 students, 24,000 employees, 1,600 school buses and is the largest employer in the state.”

McClain said that although the size of the school system is challenging, the physical security of students is well maintained. Many state-of-the-art security systems function simultaneously within the school system, ensuring the optimal safety of its students.

According to McClain, all elementary and middle schools utilize an electronic door access system and Herndon High School recently hosted a pilot program to see if they would work at the high school level.

“That test seemed to show great success,” he said. “We may soon use them in the high schools as well.”

In addition, all schools utilize “Automated Visitor Management Systems” which scans all visitors in via their ID and automatically cross checks them against sexual offender lists all across the country.

All schools also have “emergency planning templates” that instruct administrators on how to perform evacuations, lockdowns and “Shelter in Place” procedures.

“Shelter in Place is a short-term reaction to a short-term situation, such as a chemical spill near a school,” McClain said. “There are procedures to shut off all incoming ventilation systems in just such a case, until the safety issue has been resolved.”

In addition to these safety systems, McClain told parents that every school has a two-way radio to contact police and other first-responders if all other communication channels go out.

In addition to ongoing training provided to all administrators and teachers, McClain said that training is also provided to thousands of bus drivers and custodial staff.

“The safety of our schools has come a long way,” he said. “When I was a young police officer and we were chasing a criminal, the last thing on my mind was a nearby school, but these days if police are chasing or looking for a bad guy near a school, that school is automatically secured to prevent him or her from holing up there and potentially causing an even more dangerous situation. Things are much different today and we try to prepare for everything.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com