Monday’s tragic shootings at Virginia Tech have prompted soul searching among school officials at Alexandria City Public Schools, who are trying to imagine doomsday scenarios and anticipating how the school system might respond in a variety of scenarios. Superintendent Rebecca Perry said that the recent tragedy can be a "teachable moment" to remind parents, teachers and administrators about being prepared for crisis. She said that parents should know that many of the crisis plans for the city schools involved a lockdown or partial lockdown, in which students and teachers seek "shelter in place."
"For example, during the sniper incident it was safer for everybody to be inside the building," said Perry. "9-11 was another case where the kids were much safer shut down inside the building."
The 2001 terrorist attack was an example when school administrators put their advance planning into effect, Perry said. Administration officials banned all outside visitors, although parents were allowed access to pick up their children. Students at T.C. Williams were not allowed to leave campus for lunch as officials at the Beauregard Street office dug through student records to see which parents and guardians worked at the Pentagon. Principals were given a list of students whose emergency notification contact information listed Pentagon employees.
"We didn’t want any child going home and not knowing where their parents were," said Perry. "In the administrative world, we say that we always do ‘face checks,’ which means that we look into people’s faces to see if they’re having a bad day."
SHORTLY AFTER a series of shootings including Columbine, President Clinton made an appearance at T.C. Williams High School and Alexandria Public Schools announced a host of new security procedures. Grant money opened up to fund school-resource officers and plans were developed about how to deal with potential shootings.
"In the ancient days when I was in school, we only had a fire-evacuation plan," said Assistant Superintendent John Porter, who was principal of T.C. Williams in 1999 during the Clinton visit. "Now we have a whole array of plans — everything from tornadoes to biological threat to a lockdown situation."
The day-to-day rhythm of school life changed shortly after Columbine. That’s when school administrators decided to lock all elementary schools, creating a tightly secure system in which all visitors must sign in with the front desk before being allowed access to the campus. In the post-Columbine world, each elementary school’s main entrance was equipped with a camera and magnetic lock to allow visitors to enter.
"There were other school shootings that happened right around the same time, like the one in Paducah," said Porter. "So that was a time when the school system made some major changes."
AS RECENTLY AS October, Superintendent Perry wrote a letter to parents on the issue of security in Alexandria’s schools. That letter was prompted by a gunman who killed five schoolgirls in Lancaster County, Pa. Perry told parents that all principals had been ordered to review crisis plans with their staff members. The briefings were a way to respond to senseless tragedy with proactive organization, Perry said in the letter.
"Sept. 11, 2001, will forever be a reminder to all Americans — especially for those of us at the door of the nation's capital — that we cannot become complacent about keeping safety and planning for the safety of our children as a first priority," Perry wrote in the Oct. 6, 2006 letter. "Our emergency plans for each school are extensive, covering a variety of situations, and they are updated on an on-going basis. For extreme situations, every school has a 24-hour supply of food and water."
The letter also detailed several of the administration’s existing security procedures. For example, the letter explained that elementary school teachers have access to their workplace with a magnetic chip. At secondary schools, the letter said, security monitors are assigned to entrance locations as part of their duties. Video cameras are monitored at George Washington, and the new T. C. Williams building will have both hallway and exterior cameras. Currently, Minnie Howard has exterior cameras with plans to install hallway cameras, Perry explained, and some school system busses are also equipped with video cameras.
"We take the security of our children very seriously," said Amy Carlini, a spokesperson for the school division. "We want our schools to be inviting and welcoming, but safety is the first priority."
Although Porter admitted that adding more locks would not have been able to prevent a tragedy like this week’s shootings — in which someone with access to buildings posed a danger — school administrators needed to be prepared for anything.
"You try to be as prepared as possible," said Porter. "But each of these situations has its own dynamics.