Gun shy: Charlottesville, Albemarle confront school safety

Special Resource Officer Pete O’Malley greets students at Monticello High School. A task force convened by Governor Bob McDonnell in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting is still examining the question of whether more SROs should be assigned to Virginia schools. Photo by John Robinson. Special Resource Officer Pete O’Malley greets students at Monticello High School. A task force convened by Governor Bob McDonnell in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting is still examining the question of whether more SROs should be assigned to Virginia schools. Photo by John Robinson.

Albemarle County School District Assistant Superintendent Matt Haas remembers the day Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and themselves at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999 as a day he knew his job would no longer be the same. A climate of fear was born overnight at the Virginia Beach high school where he was then assistant principal.

“I never thought I would hear a parent say on the phone, ‘I don’t want to send my child to school, because I’m worried that they won’t come home,’” he said.

That fear has spiked everywhere in the wake of subsequent acts of violence at schools across the nation, and has surged again since the shooting that left 26 children and staff dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut two months ago this week. It’s manifested locally in a gun attack rumor at Albemarle High School that led some parents to keep their kids home one December Friday, and an angry reaction from parents over a pellet gun shooting on a Charlottesville school bus last month. Now, police and administrators are planning a forum to help tamp down the community’s hair-trigger emotions over school violence, even as they get familiar with an initial set of recommendations from a special school safety task force convened by Governor Bob McDonnell.

Haas said local schools are actually ahead of the curve when it comes to several of the new recommendations, including the implementation of safety audits and checklists. Sometimes the problems come down to details of design, he said.

“When most of our schools were built in the 1960s and ’70s, they were built to prioritize getting everyone out if there was a fire,” said Haas. That means doors everywhere, which now leaves buildings vulnerable to a very different kind of threat. The solution has been to monitor entrances carefully, and introduce strict rules about visitor check-ins.

Jim Henderson, assistant superintendent for administration services for Charlottesville City Schools, said his district partners with police on a security overhaul every other year, and has recently put more focus on how to control visitor traffic.

“We want to be able to be more cognizant of who comes and who leaves,” he said.

Local attitudes toward upping the number of armed guards at schools—a topic the task force is set to take on in the coming months—are more mixed.

There are currently eight Special Resource Officers (SROs) working at city and county schools, each a trained cop with a loaded weapon on his or her hip. Albemarle’s three main high schools each have one, as does Murray, a public charter school. Charlottesville High School has two. Buford Middle School has one, and so does Walker Upper Elementary.

Those numbers are down from their peak in 2006, said Albemarle County Police Chief Steve Sellers, when the county alone had seven or eight officers assigned to its schools. The reason there are fewer SROs now is the same reason Sellers questions the wisdom of some Virginia lawmakers’ insistence that every school in the state now needs one: They’re expensive, and strained school and municipal budgets don’t have room for many more of them.

“I just don’t think it’s the answer,” Sellers said. “I would love to have 25 more officers for my police department, but it’s not just 25 more police officers. It’s five or six supervisors to support that. It’s administrative costs associated with that. And I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

School officials said when you steer more money to costly protective measures, you also risk upending the atmosphere of warmth and welcome a school is supposed to provide, and obscuring a fact often lost in escalating fears over headline-grabbing shootings: Since the 1990s, overall school violence has plunged.

Nobody pushes that last point harder than Dewey Cornell, a UVA psychologist and nationally known expert on youth violence who was one of the 45 people tapped to serve on the governor’s school safety task force. He’s often called to testify on behalf of juveniles convicted of murder, and has been privy to the intimate details of the kinds of crimes that become TV news specials—several involving teenagers who shot classmates, parents, and teachers. But he’s also spent more than three decades watching trends in school violence, and said such high-profile incidents are still the exception, not the rule.

“The level of violence in schools has declined steadily and dramatically since the early ’90s,” Cornell said. “It’s about a third what it was then.”

That’s because starting about 20 years ago, schools took action to tackle violent behavior within student populations, with counseling programs for anger, peer conflict, and learning problems that lead to student frustration.

“There are hundreds of controlled studies looking at the effects of these school-based mental health programs,” said Cornell. “And they show that they work.”

But in the wake of a tragedy like Newtown and the massive amount of press coverage that follows, it’s all too easy to forget data, and to turn the focus on the stranger with a gun.

“Every time we have a really high-profile school shooting, there’s a spike in fear, and a rush to impose policies and crack down,” he said, some of which do more harm than good. “We’ve spent quite a bit of money on physical security and crisis response approaches, I think based largely on fear of having a local school shooting—a shooting here—and we haven’t paid as much attention to the prevention efforts that have to start long before.”

Jim Henderson said that since Newtown, it’s hard to get away from the issue, as worried parents turn even school budget meetings into Q&As on safety measures. And with emotions running high, there’s more scrutiny when things get out of hand. Last month, administrators waited a day to alert parents that an elementary school student had shot a classmate with a pellet gun on a city school bus, prompting a furious reaction, which included a rant on the evening news from the parents of the child shot.

Henderson said discipline issues have to stay confidential, but he understands parents’ frustration and the need to restore their faith in schools’ ability to protect students. That’s the impetus behind a joint forum on school safety organized by both districts and set for 6:30pm February 21 at the County Office Building. Schools will never be impenetrable to violence, Henderson said, but the community has to trust that officials are doing what they can to protect those in them.

“If we put buzzers at all the doors and bars over the windows, we still couldn’t solve the issue, and we can’t control every moment,” he said. “No matter what we do, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that this will never happen again. What I can tell you is that I know the schools are safe.”