With a sniper on the loose in the Washington Metropolitan area, local schools are taking every precaution to keep students safe. They're ushering students inside the buildings as soon as they arrive, bringing P.E. indoors and even walking elementary-school children home.
Centreville Elementary Principal Jim Latt explained things simply to his students. "We are a community of learners — one big family, like substitute moms and dads, in a big house six hours a day," he said. "And just like you're safe at home, you're safe here."
At Liberty Middle, Principal Audra Sydnor and her security staff told students some of the extra measures they'd taken to insure their safety, and at Rocky Run Middle, Principal Danny Meier answered students' questions as they arose so as not to arouse any undue fears.
Meanwhile, at Centreville High, Principal Pam Latt kept students busy and involved in various activities to keep things as normal for them as possible. But recent events have definitely had an impact, and the schools have had to change the ways they do things — at least for now.
"At Centreville Elementary, we've pretty much limited all our activities to indoors since the first shooting, Oct. 3," said Jim Latt. "Our school and playing fields are on a major highway, Route 28." Initially, children could still play behind the building but, after the second shooting, the school system banned all outdoor activities.
Latt said fifth- and sixth-graders had more information and misinformation than the younger students and were talking about it. "We knew the kids would know about it by lunchtime, so I wanted to make sure they had accurate information," he said. "You just try to lessen their anxiety and reassure them as much as you can."
He then addressed the students on in-house TV. "Some of you may have heard that there have been some shootings in the Washington area," he said. "None of them have been anywhere near our school, but we want to be sure that everybody is safe, so we want to keep everybody inside the building."
Latt encouraged students to talk to their parents and noted that they always have access to teachers and counselors. He said they know their school has strong security measures and that people in the building must wear I.D. badges. Said Latt: "The biggest concern — the same that adults are facing — is the unknown, so I tell them we do have control of our setting."
He said 9/11 gave Centreville Elementary practice in dealing with a community in crisis. And he asked teachers to be particularly sensitive and observant to students experiencing any anxiety. So far, he said, "We're not having that same type of response."
Safety patrols were told to time their arrival at school closer to the times the buses arrive, and they were advised not to be alone at any time without their partner and, preferably, a parent. "I asked parents to help assist at bus stops in the morning and afternoon — to be physically present — and we've had a really good response," said Latt. "We've also had a real increase in the number of children being driven to school."
When students are dismissed after school now, teachers accompany the walkers all the way to their homes. Centreville also canceled field trips, and both Latt and the PTA president wrote to parents asking them to support the school's efforts.
Furthermore, faced with antsy children in need of exercise, the teachers got creative. They began indoor recess in their classrooms, having children play board or math games, for example, or free-choice activities such as drawing and crafts. But last Friday, students still needed to "get the wiggles out," said Latt, so the school created a special activity period in the hallways.
From 2-2:30 p.m., the upper grades played hopscotch, had crab-crawl and scooter-board races, jump roped and played with hula hoops. From 2:30-3 p.m., the lower graders did likewise. Then at 3 p.m., the Macarena and the chicken dance were played over the P.A. system and everyone came out in the hallways and danced. "We had a ball," said Latt. "We all needed a break, mentally and physically. The adults needed it as much as the children."
At Rocky Run, Meier said, "We're just taking every precaution we can. Fortunately, because of our downsizing this year, we don't have any kids in trailers." P.E. classes were moved indoors, Oct. 4, and morning arrival was also changed.
"Students usually waited outside the building in the morning, before coming in to class, but now — as soon as they come to campus — we usher them inside the building," said Meier. "We've also increased the visibility of the school resource officer, Bill Goulart, and the administration, outside greeting them in the morning." Then, at the end of the day, they see them off. If a student's ride hasn't arrived after everyone else is gone, the student is asked to wait inside.
Goulart is also patrolling the grounds more frequently and is driving around through the neighborhoods more often. Students are no longer allowed to eat lunch outdoors and, for the first time in years, the blinds in the cafeteria were rolled down.
"The safety of our students is our number-one priority, so we're taking every measure to let the parents know that their children are safe," said Meier. "And I've commended the students on how much maturity they've shown. Kids don't like restrictions, but they've been very cooperative and understanding."
After a middle-school student was shot outside his school in Maryland, instead of focusing attention on it and scaring the students, Meier answered questions as asked. "We didn't want to heighten our students' concerns," he explained. "I sent a letter home to the parents, telling them the precautions we were taking at the school. And we have a crisis-management plan, so things were already in place."
At Liberty, Sydnor handled that issue similarly. The day after it happened, she and school resource officer Tim Burgess and safety-and-security assistant Tim Edmundson went on in-house TV and shared with students and faculty some of what they'd put in place to keep them safe and make them feel secure. They did the same thing at the Wednesday, Oct. 16, PTA meeting.
"We've remained calm and tried to keep instruction and the school climate as close to normal as possible," said Sydnor. "Our gym is still not ready to use, so P.E. students had been going outdoors, but now they're inside. Field trips to the D.C. Metropolitan area have been canceled, and we're asking for photo I.D.s of people [entering the building] who we don't know personally."
The school is under constant surveillance by the administrators and security, and they're all checking the building more frequently. Burgess now parks his police cruiser in a highly visible spot, and only half a door to the school is open — and it's carefully monitored.
Sydnor also sent parents a letter encouraging them to sign up for Keep in Touch on the Fairfax County school system Web site, www.fcps.edu, so that any emergency announcements from FCPS will be e-mailed to them. They just have to click on the Keep in Touch box.
Liberty also has counselors and the school psychologist and social worker available, in case students want to talk. Teachers may also refer students to them. The school also sent home a Web site address to parents, offering advice on talking to their children about violence.
Meanwhile, said Sydnor, it's business as usual at Liberty, and she's glad to see it: "Kids are still kids — they're still smiling and skipping through the halls when they shouldn't be. And the parents are wonderful — they've volunteered to help in any way they can."
At Centreville High, the students are older and, said Pam Latt, "Everybody's very tense." But she's told them they need to be the eyes and ears of the police: "It 'deputizes' them and puts them on the offense, instead of the defense." Doing their usual things also helps, she said: "When you can't make sense out of something, you keep things as routine as possible for kids."
She's also keeping them busy holding mock elections and planning for this weekend's Homecoming. The varsity football team is practicing in the gym, and clubs continue meeting. "Last week, 276 kids showed up for Key Club," said Latt. "It's a service club, and this is their way of responding to something they have no control over."
She's told students to "be especially safe and careful out there," extra security measures have been implemented, outdoor lunch has been canceled and students must wait inside the school for parents picking them up. After the Maryland student was shot, she told them, "No one is exempt from this person doing the shooting. Concentrate positive thoughts on this young [victim]."
Latt said the students have been "amazing" under pressure and she's proud of them. "I want to make them aware, but not inundate them," she said. "School should be a respite for them — a place where they can be a kid."