The blinds are open. The doors are unlocked. And the weather is the only thing keeping students indoors these days at Fairfax County Public Schools.
Schools superintendent Daniel Domenech lifted the security restrictions placed on all the schools minutes after Montgomery County, Md., police chief Charles Moose announced last Thursday that the suspects in the sniper shootings, which had been plaguing the Washington D.C.- metropolitan area for three weeks, were in custody and will be charged in the crimes that left 10 dead people and three wounded. Four of the shootings occurred in Virginia, one in Fairfax County.
"Based on the information released tonight … it is our sense that indeed this situation is over. We are returning to a normal school day," Domenech said last Thursday.
Beginning Friday, Oct. 25, all of the restrictions were lifted. The decision allowed the return of students to athletic fields and playgrounds, the reinstatement of field trips, a restoration of the behind-the-wheel driving and history-on-location adult-education classes, and the celebration of high-school homecomings, albeit in some cases on rescheduled dates. That weekend's athletic events took place at alternate locations, namely Fort Belvoir and Quantico Marine base, as scheduled, because it was too late to switch them back to their original home sites.
Since the shootings began Oct. 2, the restrictions had been in place. First on a day-by-day basis, with the restrictions actually being lifted temporarily at one point. Then on Oct. 10, after a middle-schooler in Maryland was shot while being dropped off at school, the restrictions were put in place "until further notice."
"There's no manual on how to deal with a situation like this," said School Board chairman Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill). "We are all very grateful to think this ordeal is over."
"I HAD A TEACHER tell me today that it was the first time in two weeks she didn't have to run to her car. The kids had been antsy, but I think they felt safe here," said Bruce Oliver, principal at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna, last Friday. "There was a euphoria on the part of the kids to get outside. Then we had an unexpected treat. We had a malfunctioning smoke alarm, so they got to go out again. It's absolutely ironic that on the first day the restrictions are lifted, that midday the alarm goes off." As part of the restrictions, all fire drills had been canceled.
The ability to simply lift the blinds on the windows helped lift some of the frustration the staff and students were feeling, said Oliver. As a security measure, Oliver said the blinds were pulled on the windows along Cedar Lane and in the cafeteria. In addition, all doors were locked, with parent volunteers checking the photograph identification of all visitors. The school resource officer (SRO), a Fairfax County police officer, also escorted the students outside to change the message board and acted as a shield for students walking through the parking lot.
"I found myself doing things to be extra safe. For example, every time I walked past a door, I double-checked it to make sure it was locked, even though I know our SRO already locked it," Oliver said. "We had all the buses pull right up to the entrances, so the students had a straight shot."
Oliver said one of the things that helped the middle-schoolers was the normalcy inside the school. He said, once they got to Thoreau, there was the usual routine making their day structured.
"Sure they were reacting internally, but there was no reaction externally," he said of the students.
THE SCHOOL SYSTEM provides additional security in the form of county police and school-system security officers at each school. In addition, counselors were placed at the schools to help staff and students.
"We have many heroes right here," Domenech said of the school-system staff. "I think we have all developed a black belt in security … and we're getting better all the time. We learned we are able to respond to a crisis situation immediately."
While Domenech did not want to talk about what, if any, security changes will be made as a result of what has been learned during the shootings, Oliver said his school will be making some changes. He said after talking with other school jurisdictions, his staff has gained ideas about things they never thought of before.
Again, without giving away security policies, Oliver said for example, after talking to other jurisdictions, the school will be adding black shades to each classroom that can be placed over the door windows if someone is illegally in the building.
"We had not thought of taking the step of having something black over the class windows so someone can't see inside," Oliver said.
The suggestion is also telling of how much schools have changed and the continual feeling of waiting for the next crisis to happen.
"When I say we're going back to normal, what is normal? There is constant stress about being in this area, a high alert of terrorism. Normal as we know it is no longer normal," Domenech said.