The lights were off and the door was locked in Shreya Mahadevan’s fourth-grade classroom at Johnson Elementary School. Small bodies huddled quietly behind a wall of backpacks—their teacher in tears.
“It was really scary. Petrifying,” says the 9-year-old girl about the lockdown her school was under last October, when a man in nearby Johnson Village was on the run after a reported burglary and sexual assault.
But as she huddled near the backpacks, and then ducked behind a bookshelf for cover, she didn’t know why—she just knew it felt different than the drills she’d been practicing.
“It’s not scary if we’re having a drill,” says Shreya. “It just makes you feel like you know what to do when something happens.”
Pausing for a moment, she corrects herself: “If something happens.”
Across a small table in a Charlottesville coffee shop sits her sister, 20-year-old Samyuktha, an Albemarle High School graduate, who says young people have come to expect violent activity in schools. And they aren’t shocked anymore when it makes headlines.
She refers to the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, where a maniac with his father’s pump-action shotgun and .38-caliber revolver murdered eight students and two teachers, where he wounded 13 others, and where surviving students immediately told reporters outside the crime scene that they weren’t surprised it happened.
“I think the expectation of violence has increased,” says Samyuktha, a rising senior studying international relations at the College of William & Mary, who notes increased awareness of violence in schools over the past year. And while that certainly doesn’t only equate to on-campus firearm fatalities, a quick search turns up 34 school shootings during the most recent academic year that resulted in 50 deaths and double the injuries.
School security systems
“Safety is always top-of-mind for school administration,” says Kim Powell, an assistant superintendent for Charlottesville City Schools. “I think what’s changed is the context we have to think about safety in.”
Powell says schools are still one of the safest public places to be, and with mass media attention given to instances of school violence, “I think it changes people’s situational awareness.”
Local schools use a threat assessment approach, where teachers and faculty are trained to attend to students who show higher levels of concern.
“If a student is showing signs of not being comfortable or acting differently, staff are trained to reach out and find out what’s going on,” says Powell.
As the administration is gearing up to go back to school, Powell says the conversations around safety have weighed heavily in three areas: processes, plans, and procedures; climate and culture; and the physical safety of the facilities.
Albemarle County Public Schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita says a new committee of students, senior staff, and community advisers will meet quarterly to evaluate safety practices and advise the county superintendent and school board.
At Woodbrook Elementary School, which is under renovation, there’s an opportunity to test a new electronic entry card system for teachers and administrators. County schools will also spend $160,000 this year to expand mental health services, including a pilot program to staff a Region Ten counselor at the middle school level. That person will work through in-school and at-home issues with students.
Schools can’t disclose their safety plans for obvious reasons, but many other security measures exist in Charlottesville and Albemarle County classrooms, including the following at various schools*:
-All classroom doors lock from the inside
-Protective coating on door windows
-Blinds or shades for all windows
-Controlled entrances prevent direct access to hallways and classrooms
-Security screening for visitors
-Security cameras at schools and on buses
-Armed and unarmed school resource officers
-Various schools have buzz-in systems at front doors
-Interior doors route visitors through main offices
-Security screenings for visitors
-Threat assessment teams at all schools
-All classroom doors lock from the inside
-Armed and unarmed school resource officers
*Provided by school spokespersons Phil Giaramita and Krissy Vick
“At this point, it’s not shocking,” says Samyuktha. “It’s more frustrating. I mean, sadness is probably the first emotion that comes out because it’s terrible to know that even more families and individuals have been affected.”
And, says 14-year-old Aidan O’Brien-Olwell, “The real fear behind this is it’s random.”
He was at Buford Middle School during the lockdown that scared Shreya and her schoolmates at Johnson Elementary. The Cherry Avenue schools were the only two that battened down the hatches during that event.
While he says it was “worrying,” he mostly remembers the confusion, and says he was in gym class when teachers instructed students to leave the gymnasium and hide in the locker room.
The then-eighth grader says it seemed like a “weird choice. …Why take us out of the large gym with many different entrances and exits to the cramped, small room with one entrance and one exit?”
Unlike Shreya’s, his teachers shed no tears, but did appear concerned and perplexed. “They were confused, just as much as we were,” he says.
O’Brien-Olwell will enter Charlottesville High School this month, but when he walked the halls of his middle school, he says safety was often on his mind.
“I mean, now, you kind of have to think about it,” he adds. And while he did generally feel safe at Buford, and thinks the lockdown protocols are mostly well-designed, he adds, “There is one area that everyone worries about.”
Translucent glass walls line the school’s science hallway, which O’Brien-Olwell says would make it hard to hide from someone peering in, and would be easy to break into. “You can see everywhere in the room. Students were the first to point it out, and realized this is the worst possible place to be.”
In today’s climate, these are topics of casual conversation for middle schoolers.
“We have had many conversations like that,” O’Brien-Olwell says, adding that the discussions are heightened in the days surrounding lockdowns and major media attention for “stuff like this.”
He goes back to the first word he used to describe that kind of “stuff,” which was “random.”
“I know I can set up a boundary between myself and the other crimes—those crimes aren’t really random,” he says. “Like I know I’m not in a gang, I know I’m not involved with drug violence, so I can kind of set up a mental boundary against the fear of something like that. But this? There’s just no way to exempt yourself from the possibility.”
When he hears about more kids who died at their schools, he feels “very upset that that could have been anyone. I could have just been unlucky in the wrong school that day.”
And while children are aware of the grim possibility, parents are perhaps even more conscious of sending their kids off to places where they know that type of violence can happen. When Priya Mahadevan waves goodbye to her daughter, Shreya, every morning, she no longer tells her to have fun at school. Now, she says she tells her to be safe.
“That’s not the kind of message you want to send,” says Priya. “It was not an issue when my older daughter was going to school. We were never scared that someone was going to walk down the school corridors and shoot people up. That was never on my mind.”
Now? “It has become much more of a reality for us.”
Boots on the ground
Priya leads the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which started as an intimate group of about 10 parents who were ready to advocate for common sense gun laws last fall, and who “were actually caught literally off guard” in February, when about 150 people showed up to a call for new members.
This was in the wake of the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and faculty dead, and the same amount injured. It was the shooting that changed the conversation.
“It’s a movement,” Priya says, describing an unprecedented reaction of anger and frustration within our community, where people found her group in an effort to advocate for immediate change. “We were not able to give them the Band-Aid solution that they really wanted,” she adds.
And that’s because there isn’t one. Affecting real change takes time, and that’s what Moms Demand Action aims to do—to continue the conversation on common-sense gun laws, to keep weapons out of the hands of known felons, domestic abusers, and people with dangerous mental illnesses, she says.
“We are not partisan, we’re not against the Second Amendment,” says Priya. “We’re just saying we want to keep our communities and children safe, and basic laws need to be in place.”
Several Moms Demand Action members met with Senator Creigh Deeds on August 16.
His platform aligns with the activist group’s in that he is against bump stocks, which make semi-automatic weapons shoot almost as fast as fully automatic machine guns, and he is for universal background checks for potential firearm purchasers.
Deeds, who was stabbed in the face and chest in November 2013 by his mentally ill son, who then shot and killed himself with a shotgun, “is opposed to seeing assault weapons in the hands of people [in which] they do not belong,” says Priya.
“He also said he would be willing to work with us on other legislative proposals for common sense gun laws,” she says.
On July 10, a delegation of five members of the local activist group, including Priya and her oldest daughter, Samyuktha, met with Democratic Delegate David Toscano to discuss gun control and school safety.
Toscano, along with Republican delegates Rob Bell and Steve Landes, are members of the state’s House Select Committee on School Safety, a 22-person bipartisan group that formed after the Parkland shooting and exists to find ways to make schools safer.
Toscano criticized the committee in a May 10 newsletter, where he said, “The Parkland shootings vividly reignited the gun safety debate all over America, including our Virginia House of Delegates. Republican and Democratic delegates, however, responded quite differently.”
He calls the safety committee’s focus “narrow,” and says the committee has been specifically instructed by House Speaker Kirk Cox, a retired teacher, not to discuss arming teachers, which was advocated by the president, or the broader issue of gun safety.
Priya mentions that Bell, the committee chairman, has a lifetime ‘A’ rating by the National Rifle Association, “so you see how it plays into such important issues being skirted around,” she says.
The first meeting, Toscano says, suggested that the group’s recommendations will likely focus on physical changes that can be made to schools, such as entrance control, locks in classrooms, and safety glass, and mental health counseling and conflict resolution for students.
Says Priya, “That is like turning a blind eye to the glaring problem at hand, which is guns, especially in the hands of the wrong people.”
Toscano also noted in a July Facebook post that his Subcommittee on Student Behavior and Intervention heard from UVA professor and national expert Dewey Cornell that the threat of deadly violence is much higher in many spaces than schools, such as restaurants and homes, which are 10 and 200 times more dangerous, respectively.
Some prosecutors in other parts of the country are considering charging parents who have unsecured guns that are used in a shooting, as reported by the New York Times in May 2018.
Priya says it should be considered child endangerment.
“They should be held accountable with an indelible felony charge and complete revoking of rights to own guns,” she says. “The Virginia laws are sadly lacking in this regard and they get away with a slap on the wrist and a small fine.”
It’s not as bad as it sounds. Researchers with the University of Virginia’s Youth Violence Project, which is directed by Dewey Cornell and exists to prevent violence among young people, surveyed nearly 70,000 students and 15,000 teachers and staff at high schools across the nation in 2016. Here’s what they found:
-82 percent of students felt safe in schools
-92 percent of teachers felt safe
-80 percent of teachers reported adequate safety and security measures
-3 percent of students reported carrying a weapon to school
Democrats are examining the issue through a “broader lens” than the Republican-led committee Toscano says, with their own task force called the Safe Virginia Initiative, which focuses largely on gun safety.
“Virginians realize that thoughts and prayers are no longer enough to address our problems,” he said in his newsletter.
For Priya, one of the largest takeaways from her discussion with Toscano was his making the connection between a school and its community—“If the community has got a lot of issues of violence, then it definitely plays out in schools as well,” she says.
They also discussed framing gun violence as a public health crisis that requires legal attention.
“We’ve managed to get a statewide Medicaid expansion with the support of people who may in the past have opposed gun sense laws,” says Samyuktha. “So if you can frame gun sense as something tied to health, and something that would be contributing to safety and physical wellbeing, then it could be a more effective legislative path.”
Priya also notes that when a child dies because of not wearing a seatbelt, or for not being properly buckled into his car seat, legislators immediately write new laws to prevent such tragedies.
“I think we should have laws in place that make sure children are safe wherever they are, and anything short of that is not acceptable,” she says. The most important step to ensure that is electing people who are willing to hear those concerns and address them, Priya adds, and “I think [voting] is the biggest weapon we have.”
Members of Moms Demand Action gathered at the Northside Library August 13 to write letters to senators and legislators, urging them to stand firmly against their colleagues who are working to legalize the 3-D printing of firearms.
Everytown For Gun Safety Support Fund, a sister organization of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense in America, reports 96 gun-related deaths in America every day. “If you think of every day as a mass shooting, that kind of shows you what’s going on,” says 20-year-old Samyuktha Mahadevan, an active organizer with Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action.
Firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children, and the first leading cause for the country’s black children.
Nearly 1,600 minors die by gun homicide every year. (For kids under the age of 13, most of these happen in the home.)
The gun homicide rate in the U.S. is 25 times higher than that of other developed countries.
“The idea of 3-D gun print-outs is preposterous and highly irresponsible and defeats the purpose of any existing gun laws,” says Priya. “We need to fight this foolishness at all costs.”
Adds Samyuktha, “I know in high school we had a 3-D printer and in college we have several. That makes it much more real to know that if someone so chose to, they could download and print something out so easily.”
Another bad idea? Arming teachers, says Priya. Even though Bell’s committee on school safety won’t discuss it, the Mahadevans will.
While Priya simply calls it the “stupidest idea in the world,” her youngest daughter, Shreya, illustrates a grim outcome.
Says the 9-year-old: “Anyone could pick up a gun from a teacher’s desk and start shooting it, or a child could get something from a teacher’s desk and pick it up out of curiosity and start playing with it, and then they might just accidentally pull the trigger on someone.”
Student activists who survived the bloodbath in Parkland have made it clear that they won’t back down. And local pupils are following their lead.
Wearing an orange T-shirt with the words “Students Demand Action” written in white, Samyuktha sat on a panel at the August 3 March For Our Lives town hall meeting at a local church, with both Charlottesville kids and faces from Parkland, who have been on tour with their message all summer.
The official March For Our Lives drew hundreds of thousands of young people to the nation’s capital on March 24 for a day of protesting lax firearm laws, advocating for gun reform, and remembering those who have lost their lives at the hands of a school shooter.
Samyuktha helped organize a March For Our Lives sister march in Williamsburg, as dozens of Charlottesville students boarded buses and headed to the big event in D.C.
Among them was then-Charlottesville High School senior Fré Halvorson-Taylor, an 18-year-old who will start classes at Columbia University this fall. Like many of her peers, she was and still is frustrated with the persistent violence in schools.
“I was disappointed with the lack of concrete response from our legislators across the country,” she says. “Every instance of gun-related violence inside and outside of schools is preventable. And I’m baffled and hurt as to why nothing is being done about it.”
Halvorson-Taylor says growing up in the “information age,” and with social media sites that allow her generation to voice their views and contribute to community discourse is partly responsible for their boldness.
“I’m not sure we have many more problems than other generations, but we’re certainly reckoning with and facing head-on a lot of issues that have existed in our society for a while,” she says. “Speaking out comes naturally to us.”
She also had a hand in the March 14 National School Walkout, where students in schools across the country walked out of class on the one-month anniversary of the shooting in Parkland. Halvorson-Taylor and Albemarle High School student Camille Pastore wrote a joint statement that was approved by representatives from Monticello and Western Albemarle high schools, and read aloud by students at all four schools during the walkout.
“For too long, we the young people, the future, have waited to speak up,” they shouted into bullhorns. “But more importantly, we’ve waited to be heard. And now our voices have been given platforms. What will we do with them?”
Though hundreds of students had walked out to their respective campuses, silence hung in the air between the young activists’ words: “Our generation reacts differently to tragedy. We went to school after Columbine and dove into textbooks during Sandy Hook. That doesn’t mean we’re not scared—we are. And our teachers are scared. And we have a right to be. We attend these institutions in fear because we are targeted, we are vulnerable, and we could be shot.”
The internal dialogue Halvorson-Taylor has been grappling with, she says, is how to make schools physically and emotionally safe, and where to draw the line between being prepared and making schools feel like prisons.
“We’ve all heard the criticism—adults are surprised to find that the Parkland teenagers are passionate, intelligent, and articulate. But this isn’t news for us. We know how strong we can be, and that’s why we’re here now, urging you all to use your voices.”
Parkland survivor Delaney Tarr has famously said the movement created and led by students is based on emotion, pain, and passion, and that some of teenagers’ biggest flaws—the tendency to lash out or be a bit too aggressive—are their greatest strengths.
“Channel your anger. Make change. For the first time in a long time, the nation is listening to us. What will we tell it?”