Fairfax County Public Schools might add mental health specialists, expand its closed-circuit television camera system, and enhance staff training, among other potential steps, based on a review of the district’s internal security practices.
In response to a review requested on Feb. 19 by Superintendent Scott Brabrand, FCPS’s Office of Safety and Security issued 14 recommendations for improving school safety to the Fairfax County School Board in a report released on June 18.
In addition to enhancing training and communication for employees and administrators, OSS recommends that FCPS create 18 additional positions for mental health specialists, such as psychologists or social workers, and install exterior and interior CCTV cameras system-wide.
According to the “Fairfax County Public Schools Internal Review Recommendations” report, FCPS is the only school district in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region that has not deployed CCTV cameras throughout the system.
While staff considered increasing the presence of police officers and arming school security, the report focused more on refining existing measures, such as electronic door access for visitors, and improving students’ mental health.
“The National Center for Education Statistics’ Survey on Crime and Safety reports that the most common types of security measures are locked buildings, ID badges for staff, video cameras, and front door access notification systems,” the report said. “…While these deterrents are best practice, research has shown that the most effective way to ensure a safe school is to have a positive school climate where students know school rules and the consequences for breaking them.”
Brabrand’s call for a review of FCPS’s internal security came in the wake of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people and reignited concerns across the country about gun violence and school safety.
According to a Washington Post database on school shootings last updated on May 25, more than 215,000 students at 217 schools in the U.S. have experienced gun violence at school since two gunmen killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.
The Columbine shooting prompted FCPS to increase the presence of police in schools as the Fairfax County Police Department added a full-time school resource officer at every middle and high school in the system, SRO Supervisor Sgt. Bill Fulton told community members on the SRO Community Review Committee during its first meeting on July 2.
However, proposals for toughening FCPS security by expanding the SRO program down to the elementary school level or arming school security personnel have drawn skepticism from many community advocates.
At a public hearing held by the Fairfax County School Board at Luther Jackson Middle School on July 12, representatives of groups such as the Fairfax County NAACP and the Fairfax County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association expressed concern that efforts to protect schools from potential threats could come at the expense of students of color and students with disabilities.
Black students make up about 10.1 percent of FCPS students, but they accounted for 34 percent of the arrests made by SROs in 2017 compared to 410 arrests involving white students, who constitute 38.7 percent of the school district’s more than 188,000 students, according to the FCPD’s 2017 annual report and enrollment data from the Virginia Department of Education’s School Quality Profiles database.
According to Fairfax County SEPTA board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, students with disabilities account for 12 percent of student enrollment nationally but 25 percent of those arrested or referred to law enforcement. Students with disabilities are 14 percent of the FCPS student population but 40 percent of the discipline referrals.
“We cannot guarantee that more cops in schools will protect children and lead to less shooting,” Fairfax County NAACP education committee chair Sean Perryman said. “We do have evidence, however, that the introduction of cops to schools lead to a more common problem: the criminalization of black, brown, and disabled students. It’s my love and effort to protect those children that leads me to say we need counselors, not cops.”
In its internal security review report, FCPS OSS staff reviewed the possibility of increasing the presence of officers in schools and arming security personnel but ultimately did not recommend taking those steps.
According to the report, adding SROs to elementary schools would carry a cost of $18 million, and adding other security personnel would cost between $5 and $9 million depending on if they are armed and whether they are security specialists, uniformed school security, or regional school security.
Instead, the report recommended spending $800,000 to add eight new training positions that would conduct more tabletop exercises, which are already used to analyze potential emergency scenarios and evaluate crisis management plans but occur every two or three years rather than annually.
The new training staff would also help increase the monitoring and reinforcement of security protocols, including the intercoms used to gain entry into schools, since “main door visitor control continues to be problematic,” according to the report.
OSS staff also recommended that FCPS add two positions for technical specialists who could install and monitor a system-wide CCTV network, which is integral to security systems like electronic door access, fire alarms, and shot detection systems.
FCPS currently installs CCTV on an individual basis depending on renovation cycles and funding, and a community review and approval process is required for any new internal installation.
System-wide interior and exterior CCTV cameras would cost an estimated $20 million with an additional $200,000 to hire the two technical specialists.
The 18 new mental health specialists recommended by the report would cost $2.3 million.
FCPS currently has one psychologist for every 2,325 points and one social worker for every 2,360 points, which are generated for each school based on their level, free and reduced-price meals eligibility, and special education services, according to the internal security review report.
Nearly all of the speakers at the July 12 public hearing expressed support for additional mental health professionals in Fairfax County’s schools, though some argued that it was only a small step in the right direction and suggested that every school should ideally have at least one full-time mental health professional.
Jen Monago, a parent of two children and volunteer for the anti-gun violence group Moms Demand Action, says that her son has anxiety and visits the one counselor at Forestville Elementary School in Great Falls once a week.
“I can’t imagine what her job must be like handling all of these children in her care, knowing that she can do so much more if she just had the resources,” Monago said. “…I’d rather invest proactively instead of reactively. If you can just put a couple more counselors in every school, the community has spoken and made it completely clear that that is what we desire.”
While the FCPS internal security review concentrated on potential changes at a local district level, its recommendations could have implications for statewide efforts to make schools safer as General Assembly legislators contemplate future policy changes.
A House Select Committee on School Safety chaired by House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th) met for a second time on July 11 to tour Meadowbrook High School in Chesterfield, review research, and evaluate safety measures at schools in Virginia and other states, according to the Hampton Roads TV news station WAVY.
The committee consists of 21 delegates, including 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
Upon announcing the committee’s formation on Mar. 8, Cox explicitly limited its work to emergency preparedness, security infrastructure, best practices, and personnel, behavioral health resources, and prevention protocols. Issues related to guns were left out of the assigned scope.
In response, the House Democratic Caucus announced on Apr. 3 that they would form a “Safe Virginia Initiative” task force that would examine gun violence in addition to other aspects of school safety.
Del. Marcus Simon (D-53rd), who stopped by the Fairfax County School Board’s public hearing on the internal security review recommendations, says he does not anticipate that either the select committee or SVI task force will release policy recommendations until around December.
He says he attended the school board public hearing in order to listen to his constituents’ thoughts on school safety.
“I’ve been saying in Richmond for a long time that more guns in schools isn’t the answer,” Simon said. “The emphasis ought to be on providing mental health services and other services that give support to our students, not to turn our schools into prisons or fortresses and not to create an us-versus-them situation between the administration and the kids. It’s reassuring to hear that that’s almost exclusively what we heard from the folks testifying today.”