By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Apr. 5, 2018 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – Nearly two months ago, a former student of Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School walked into the building and opened fire, taking the lives of 17 people and wounding almost 20 others before eventually being taken into custody.
The shooting in Parkland, Florida is one of over a dozen that has occurred over the course of 2018 – only a third of the way through the calendar – and has resulted in conversations and debate about access to certain types of firearms, how to prevent another tragedy like this from happening, and what local communities, school boards, and school divisions are doing to keep students, teachers, and support staff safe when at school.
Prince George County and the county school division is no exception as officials with the school division said they have heard from families in the community who have expressed their desire to support the school system in any necessary upgrades to support safety and security of all of the county’s school facilities.
“Prince George Schools is committed to the safety of our children and the security of our schools,” Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Accountability Dr. Lisa Pennycuff said in an interview. “This commitment is evident in our Mission Statement, ‘Prince George County Public Schools, in partnership with parents and the community, works to provide a meaningful and challenging educational program in a safe environment that prepares all students for post-secondary education and the workforce and to be responsible citizens in a global society.'”
“We believe that children need to feel safe in order to be able to learn,” she continued. “Our students are taught that part of their responsibility as citizens is to help keep our school community safe by sharing safety concerns with faculty and staff.”
In today’s world, school security is at or right near the top of the list in terms of priorities and funding as more and more school divisions look at their own assets – such as buildings and other facilities – and evaluate how to keep them secure whether they are occupied or not. Along with funding from local governments being used to pay for those security needs, be it resource officers or security equipment, school divisions also have access to grant programs, such as the School Resource Officer/School Security Officer Incentive Grant offered by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which provides funding to localities to place either an SRO or SSO in a school where one doesn’t currently exist or the school security grant equipment grant offered by the Virginia Department of Education, which requires a 25 percent local match, but grantees would receive $100,000 to purchase security equipment that will be installed in schools, among others.
While not going into specifics due to security reasons, Pennycuff said the school division “has Crisis Procedures that are reviewed with teachers and students and practiced on a regular basis such as how to respond should an intruder enter the building.”
“School Resource Officers and School Security Officers participate in these opportunities to observe and provide ideas for improvement of the process following students and teachers practicing the procedures,” the assistant superintendent continued. “Additionally, officers from the Prince George County Police Department will also help with some of these drills throughout the school year. ”
“Additional safety measures include limiting access to only the front entrance by non-staff members during the school day and visitors must request access to enter the building,” Pennycuff said. “Additionally, Prince George Police visit often for presence, to participate in afterschool programs as volunteers, and visit from time to time to collaborate with our School Resource Officers.”
In addition, as the budget building process for both Prince George County and the school division continues, one of the items earmarked by the county for funding in the coming year is a new elementary school to replace either Walton or Beazley schools, with one of the main points for replacement being security as both schools are open-campus facilities, which officials said presents its own issues in terms of security.
In the days and weeks following the deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took to social media and other platforms in an effort to further the conversation of gun violence, with March 14 becoming a day of action and a day of remembrance as students, teachers, and others walked out of their classrooms across the United States one month after the shooting and took part in peaceful demonstrations or acts of remembrance.
Local students took part in a similar event, Pennycuff confirmed, saying that a number of students met with the principal of Prince George High School to discuss doing something proactive following the shooting in Florida.
“Working with the school administration, the students developed a plan to have a designated 17 minutes of remembrance for Parkland on March 14,” she said. “Students could sit quietly and reflect, write a letter to a government leader, or a letter of sympathy to the school in Florida. Students and staff were encouraged to wear burgundy and silver on that day which are the school colors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The students placed posters around the school and distributed ribbons.”
On the day of the event, Pennycuff said, “About 25 students chose to walk out of class on that day and stood in front of the school,” leaving their classrooms at approximately 10 a.m. and eventually returning just before 10:20 a.m.
“The students were peaceful and respectful in their recognition of these events and returned to class without incident,” she said.
Along with the remembrance at the high school, Pennycuff said students at JEJ Moore Middle School, N.B. Clements Junior High School, and the Prince George Education Center took “17 minutes to write a letter or to create a visual message to send to a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” sharing messages of hope and healing.
With similar peaceful protests being tentatively planned for April, some asked what the school division’s policy regarding students taking part in such events this month or in the future and if they would face disciplinary action. When asked, the assistant superintendent said Prince George Public Schools “strongly encourages students to work with their school administration to discuss their concerns and find peaceful, productive, and respectful ways to express their views.”
According to Pennycuff, the students who helped plan the March 14 event are “having ongoing discussions with the school administration” about the potential of having a similar event later this month.