Are area schools secure?
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
AND PAMELA GOULD
Culpeper Sheriff Scott Jenkins has expressed concerns about the security of county schools and his frustration with school leadership’s response to his interest in beefing up training last summer.
In an email Monday, he said he met with schools Superintendent Bobbi Johnson and Assistant Superintendent Russell Houck over the summer in an effort to implement more security measures and training, but he was told it would be “two to three years” before teachers and administrators had time to train on security plans.
He also said in his email that he had received a “large number of messages and visits” in the wake of Friday’s shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead.
Johnson said she was “taken aback” by Jenkins’ email. She said school officials have planned and trained for various emergencies.
The apparent tension between law enforcement and school personnel in Culpeper County was absent across the rest of the Fredericksburg region this week.
Additional law enforcement officers were deployed to schools throughout the area for this week, and Virginia State Police offered assistance if any division needed help with its security plan or training.
Spotsylvania Superintendent Scott Baker and Sheriff Roger Harris had a meeting scheduled before Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown.
County Administrator Doug Barnes joined Baker and Harris on Tuesday to review security plans and discuss how best to achieve their shared goal of school safety.
Harris sent deputies to every school this week, and said he wished he could keep someone at every school year-round. Currently, the division has an officer at each middle and high school but would need 17 more to post someone at the county’s elementary schools full-time.
Baker said the Sheriff’s Office conducts “active-shooter training” at the schools and that educators are part of that effort.
Baker also said he is looking into how to better control access to schools, including looking into whether Spotsylvania could implement what’s used in Hanover County. There, schools have cameras in place so staff can see who is seeking to enter. They use an electronic buzzer to grant access, he said.
Each Spotsylvania school has a so-called panic button in the main office to contact authorities immediately, and phones in classrooms so teachers can dial 911, Baker and schools spokeswoman René Daniels said.
Stafford County Superintendent Randy Bridges said his division has an “outstanding partnership” with the Sheriff’s Office and that deputies regularly train at the schools for emergencies. The schools also drill on lockdowns and other emergencies.
“But when things like this happen, you instantly go back and you examine. You ask: ‘Are there places where we can improve?’” he said.
School officials met with Sheriff Charles Jett on Monday to evaluate the safety plan.
Stafford deputies are stationed at every high school and rotated among middle schools. School administrators also have new radio systems and can immediately contact emergency dispatch officers, said sheriff’s spokesman Bill Kennedy.
Fredericksburg City Councilman Brad Ellis emailed other council members, Police Chief David Nye and Superintendent David Melton this week asking what security is in place in the schools and what the council can do to help. Nye responded that police Capt. Rick Pennock met with the senior staff of James Monroe High, Walker–Grant Middle and Lafayette Upper Elementary schools last year to discuss how police would respond if a shooter was in a school.
He said the department plans to meet with school officials again in January and will include staff from all four of the city’s schools.
Nye said all sworn officers went through active-shooter training in August and had additional training just days before the Connecticut tragedy.
Like other superintendents, Melton said he’d like to have an officer at every school full-time. He said the schools drill for emergencies several times each year.
KING GEORGE COUNTY
King George Superintendent Robert Benson said his system is prepared and has developed a plan with the Sheriff’s Office for lockdowns and crises. He said is currently reviewing security policies to ensure each school is as safe as possible.
“We are very familiar with what to do,” Sheriff Steve Dempsey said. “We’re ready if something were to happen.”
Orange Superintendent Bob Grimesey said school officials have “close working relationships” with the county Sheriff’s Office, state police and police departments in the towns of Orange and Gordonsville, and that all of them are represented on the division’s school-safety committee.
But Grimesey said additional security steps are needed, such as modernizing Orange County High to consolidate classes into fewer buildings.
He also said keyless entry systems are needed at all schools, entrances should be reconstructed and security cameras should be installed.
Grimesey also said the state needs to increase funding for support positions in schools, noting that such people played key roles in helping students during the Connecticut shooting.
Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa released a statement this week noting that his command staff and school officials met Sunday to discuss security details.
He also noted that deputies and the Special Emergency Response Team “routinely conduct active-shooter training at local schools and that extensive protocols are in place and routinely analyzed and updated.”
Culpeper Superintendent Johnson said school administrators underwent threat-assessment training in August and held an active-shooter drill at Eastern View High in November 2009.
She also noted that after a series of bomb threats last fall, school officials worked with the Sheriff’s Office to develop a response plan.
“Each school has a safety team, a crisis plan, and undergoes safety audits,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Free Lance–Star. “There are procedures in place to address a multitude of emergencies.”
Jenkins wants standardized labeling and color coding of schools and master keys to buildings. The color coding is inexpensive and the keys would prevent officers from needing to wait to enter a building under siege, he said.
Jenkins said there was no law enforcement plan for responding to a shooter in a school when he took office in January and that his office invested significant overtime in creating it.
School Board member Rusty Jenkins, who has a lengthy law enforcement background, sought to add the safety issue to the agenda of Monday night’s special meeting but failed. It’s expected to be on the agenda at January’s meeting.
“We need to review all security measures now in place,” Jenkins said Tuesday.
—Staff writers Amy Umble, Robyn Sidersky, Lindley Estes and Dan MacFarland contributed to this report.