School officials seek to assure jittery parents of children’s safety
Who would have thought that time would catch up so quickly with Rappahannock High School that lessons learned from Sandy Hook and Columbine would be discussed at a special meeting with parents last week?
“It’s a different world,” Rappahannock County Interim Superintendent Dr. Gary R. Blair put it plainly.
Change has come so drastically that Blair said school officials have even debated whether to allow students to bring backpacks into the classrooms during school hours.
“Are they [backpacks] OK during the day?” he asked parents out loud, welcoming feedback from the audience of 100 or more. “We have to make changes, decide as a community. A child has to feel safe.”
“We don’t feel safe and secure,” one student sitting in the audience with her grandparents raised her hand to say. “A lot of students are worried.”
“I’m glad you brought that up,” replied Blair. “Thank you for that.”
Blair informed parents for the first time that the Rappahannock County School system was following the lead of Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
Based in Newtown, Conn., the intent of the organization is to honor all victims of gun violence by turning their tragedy into a moment of transformation by providing programs and practices that protect children from gun violence.
The interim superintendent told the parents that when a representative of Sandy Hook heard about the threat made in Rappahannock County they “wanted to fly in here tonight.”
And for good reason. Last year at this time the tight-knit public school of fewer than 400 students was absorbed with commencement exercise planning and pending summer vacations.
Now one year later Blair was telling worried parents that the “thought” crossed his mind of having metal detectors installed at the high school.
All because two Rappahannock High School students — a 17-year-old and 16-year-old — allegedly plotted to “blow this place to pieces” on the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine massacre, according to a court affidavit.
The older student has been arrested and awaits a May 25 hearing in juvenile court. The Rappahannock News was told by Cindy Shin, the assistant Public Defender for Fauquier and Rappahannock counties based in Warrenton, that she will represent the 17-year-old in court.
The Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office has not disclosed the whereabouts of the younger student, only to say that no threat exists while their investigation is “ongoing.”
In the meantime, the school system is busy beefing up security, following a similar course of action taken at both Sandy Hook and Columbine.
According to Blair, a new computerized visitor check-in system has “already been purchased;” additional alarms and cameras are being installed; speed bumps and stop gates will be erected at both the high school and elementary school to slow down and “limit movement around the buildings during designated times;” and additional custodial attention will be given to “security and lock-up procedures.”
Propane tanks once found outdoors on school property have “already been moved inside;” an inventory of school badges and keys is underway to find out “who has them [and] how many” are out there; and Blair wants to see “full time” resource officers at both schools, although he admitted “I don’t know how to fund them.” He suggested retired law enforcement officers might be a way to go.
He said Rappahannock High School will also “revise its entire code of conduct;” student movement inside the building will be more restrictive; and as for cell phones Blair professed, “I don’t know what to do.”
Take the cell phones away, the superintendent said, and “you’ll have a sit down strike on 211” in front of the school.
Teachers, Blair assured parents, will undergo additional training to deal with emergency situations and “Lord forbid” major crises. But no matter how many steps the school system takes, it was conceded, there will still be gaps in security.
The superintendent then pointed out that while making his regular rounds hours earlier he discovered a rear door at the high school “propped open.”
“I was angry,” he said.
The parents, meanwhile, had plenty of questions for school officials, and by the end of the night they weren’t completely satisfied with the answers they’d been provided.
One mother asked about the status of a group at the high school who refer to themselves as the “Redneck Mafia?”
“Definitely there was a Redneck Mafia,” Blair replied, although he was quick to add that they were “not a gang like I’m used to in Richmond.”
“I can’t give you an update if they’re still around. They were a negative group that worried me,” he admitted, although they were “not involved to my knowledge” in the current threat.
Another parent complained about a “lack of transparency” surrounding the school threat, suggesting there are better ways for the school system to communicate with parents and students.
One mother asked why a robocall from Blair to parents that first warned of the threat was not made until students had already returned from spring break — particularly since school officials knew of the threat days before.
“My bad,” answered Blair. “I apologize.”
Another parent said it is “important for us to be honest with our children,” but in this case, with little information coming from either the school or the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office, it has been difficult to be so.
More than once Blair invited Sheriff Connie Compton to address some of the questions, but she had little to say beyond that the Rappahannock News was “just trying to sell papers.”
That said, the Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Major J.D. Arstino Jr., who heads the investigation, stood to address the crowd.
From him parents mostly wanted to know the status of the 16-year-old suspect, which both the sheriff’s office and school system have refused to discuss. The major assured them that he knew the “whereabouts” of everybody in the case who is under investigation.
To another question, he confirmed that “everybody involved” with the threat had been removed from the school.
One parent at that point said it is not the duty of the school system to deal with troublemakers, that children instead need to be “monitored” by their parents in the home and if they see illegal activity it “needs to be stopped at the home.”
A parent said they had read on social media that the school system first knew of a threat coinciding with Columbine in “November” and asked why it didn’t act then. Blair seemed to suggest that the high school did know of a threat in “December.”
Another mother thanked the school system for all it has done to keep children safe. During an emotional moment earlier, Blair had recalled the murder of a student he’d become close to while a principal in Richmond. He told the Rappahannock parents: “I’m not going to lose one here.”
“I’m not going to lose another,” he said. I’m not going to lose 10 of them.”
Still, one father raised his hand towards the end of the meeting to say he wasn’t satisfied with any answers given to the twenty or more questions.
“The answers aren’t there,” said the parent, “you’re circling around them.”