Are Our Schools Safe?
As America's gun violence epidemic continues, questions about preparedness are hitting home.
On a Saturday afternoon in June, Susan Merrigan was shopping with her kids and some friends at Tysons Corner Center when they heard a commotion on the level above them and someone yelled, “Gun, gun, gun!” They ran into the nearest shop, hoping to find shelter, but were turned away by staff who were locking down the store. That’s when they heard the unmistakable sound: pop pop pop.
Merrigan’s group and everyone around them broke into a run as the gates of store after store crashed down—a measure designed to keep employees safe in an active shooter event, but one that left dozens of panicking customers with nowhere to go.
“I had no idea what to do,” Merrigan recalls. “I was literally running for my life.”
Finally, after seconds that felt like an eternity, the employees of a shoe store ushered them into the back room before locking down the premises. From there, they exited out to a loading dock and ran to a parking garage.
Although shots were fired, no one was hurt or killed in the incident, which turned out to be gang related. The outcome could have been far worse, Merrigan says, but it was still terrifying.
Afterward, her daughter, Maisy, who attends Gunston Middle School, repeated questions like “Is it going to happen again?”
Her son Liam, a Wakefield High School student, was quieter, saying little about it. Merrigan still isn’t sure how the shooting will sit with her kids over the long term.
But the experience did spark one immediate realization for the Arlington mom: The lockdown drills that had become so routine at her kids’ schools were solely focused on hiding in the classroom—not on what happens when students are caught in common areas.
“Maisy has been doing lockdown drills since kindergarten, but they didn’t prepare her for this,” Merrigan says. “We were in the middle of the mall, in the shooting gallery. That was the most disturbing part—the 10 seconds of not knowing and running.”
Ours is a nation reeling from mass shootings and rampant gun violence. Tragedies of years past remain fresh in our minds, compounded by the more recent carnage in Buffalo, New York, where a racially motivated gunman killed 10 Black people, and in Uvalde, Texas, where the massacre of 19 elementary school children and two teachers brought back the horrors of Sandy Hook and Parkland.
By the time a shooter killed seven people and injured 46 more at a Fourth of July parade in a Chicago suburb, more than 300 mass shootings had occurred in the United States this year alone, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA). In the seven years between 2014 and 2020, guns killed or injured 26,615 children aged 17 and younger. In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death for kids and teens in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Every mass shooting triggers an outpouring of grief and anger, finger-pointing, anxiety and hopelessness. Protests and marches ensue, along with renewed calls for stricter gun laws or increased mental health services. Then the cycle repeats.
In 2020, firearms became the leading cause of death for kids and teens in the U.S., according to the CDC.
At the federal level, Congress passed legislation in June that many viewed as an important step toward curbing gun violence. Signed into law by President Biden, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act improves background checks, increases protections for domestic violence victims, incentivizes states to pass laws removing guns from high-risk individuals, and funnels more money into mental health initiatives. It is the first gun safety measure to pass Congress in decades, although gun-sense advocacy groups such as Every Town for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise say more restrictions need to be put in place.
Meanwhile, the specter of violence is creeping closer to home. This spring, an unnamed threat caused the cancellation of Gunston’s eighth-grade dance. Last year, possible shooter threats caused lockdowns at Yorktown and Washington-Liberty (W-L) high schools, and suspicious individuals were reported near Kenmore Middle School and Hoffman-Boston Elementary.
Although not gun-related, an Alexandria City High School student was fatally stabbed in May at Bradlee Center on Route 7—a tragedy that was keenly felt amid all the other violence.
In July, police were dispatched to W-L after receiving a report of possible shots fired inside a school bathroom. The cause ended up being fireworks, but the incident prompted a lockdown that left staff on edge.
“Schools have drawn the short straw in managing what has essentially been, from my perspective, a pressure cooker of overlapping challenges—health challenges, learning challenges, physical and mental challenges, families being torn apart by the pandemic,” says a Gunston parent who asked to remain anonymous. “I think that really contributed to an insane amount of pressure on kids, on teachers, on schools and on families. All of that, for our family, really came to a head when the Texas shooting happened, and the Bradlee Center stabbing.”
After Buffalo and Uvalde, the Arlington County Board in late May issued a statement condemning gun violence. “Our hearts are heavy for the families who are suffering from the most profound loss imaginable,” the board said. “We renew our commitment to act to the fullest extent of our local authority and call for additional action so that we can further protect our community from gun violence.”
The statement underscored the county board’s recent actions to establish gun-free zones in public facilities in Arlington and to locally implement a 2016 state law removing guns from domestic violence offenders.
Ramped-up school security will only go so far, says County Board Chair Katie Cristol: “There’s no amount of hardening a school that can promise a parent this won’t happen. The only way to do that is with government legislation. When we can achieve state and federal policy changes, the actual implementation is going to come down to dozens of small decisions on the local level.”
“There’s no amount of hardening a school that can promise a parent this won’t happen.”
Cristol supports a ban on semiautomatic weapons, safe storage requirements for firearms near minors, and the expansion of eligible categories for extreme risk protection orders, among other measures.
“Schools will be safer when we treat guns the way responsible gun owners do,” says Alison Sheahan, head of the Arlington chapter of Moms Demand Action. “We store guns and ammunition securely and separately, we teach our children these are deadly weapons and an earned responsibility, and we follow licensure requirements and training to keep ourselves and our fellow citizens safe.”
On the school front, Sheahan is pushing for improvements in building security, mental health services, threat assessments and intervention for students who are deemed to be at risk of harming themselves or others.
Moms Demand Action also supports background checks on all gun sales and ending sales of semiautomatic weapons, high-capacity magazines and untraceable, self-assembly “ghost” guns.
Over the next couple years, Arlington County is planning to upgrade entrances at several schools, including the construction of more secure vestibules. Starting this fall, every lock on every public-school classroom and office door will be upgraded to a standard inside-locking knob.
“It’s been a hodgepodge of door hardware [up to now],” says Zachary Pope, director of safety, security, risk and emergency management for Arlington Public Schools (APS). “The research shows that the ability to lock down a classroom easily saves 10 seconds to a minute.” Those seconds can save lives.
Installing bulletproof glass in interior and exterior classroom windows and doors is not on the table, Pope says, because window access “is not a traditional method of travel for armed assailants”—although schools have looked into how quickly classroom windows can be covered, if needed, to block the view from outside.
Nevertheless, parents, students, teachers and administrators remain worried about how to adequately protect schools.
Questions abound: Are lockdown drills the right approach? Should teachers be armed? Should public-school floor plans be reconfigured with the threat of gun violence in mind? Do our schools have adequate mental health resources? And to what extent should parents and students have a say in what happens?
Preparing a school for the possibility of mass violence is layered like an onion, starting at the classroom level with teachers and students, then expanding to include school counselors and administrators, then the school district, and then the community, state and nation at large. The innermost layer—the classroom—is where one of the most visible forms of preparation occurs: the lockdown drill.
Lockdown drills (in which children are taught to hide and stay quiet for a certain period of time, often in a closet) are required by law in the state of Virginia. All local school districts conduct them at all levels of education.
In Arlington and other neighboring school districts, teachers are also required to do compliance training before every academic year, which includes learning how to respond in an active shooter situation.
Samantha Sherman (not her real name), a middle-school teacher in North Arlington, is concerned about the inconsistent practice of buzzing in visitors to schools, where it’s often easy to “tailgate” into a school building behind someone else who is walking in or out.
“Arlington has to take a hard look at all of the schools and how secure all the schools really are,” Sherman says. “My school was built in the ’50s and we have not done the updates necessary to make sure that all visitors are coming in a single access point. We need to be looking at the configuration of the schools we have, and if that means we need to halt the new building projects that are happening, then so be it.”
Some wonder whether lockdowns may be the wrong approach in an active shooter situation, leaving kids stuck inside as “sitting ducks.” A newer protocol developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advocates the “Run, Hide, Fight” response, where escape is the primary survival tactic, followed by hiding and then fighting as a last resort.
Lockdown drills focus only on what to do in the classroom, Sherman points out, overlooking the many situations when students and teachers might be elsewhere on the property—like what the Merrigans experienced at the mall in Tysons Corner.
Without practicing an escape plan, she says, a teacher could potentially lead children into an even worse situation. “I could escape out the nearest door and run into an [enclosed] courtyard and then I’m stuck. We have to consider how the school is configured and get trained on what to do in each specific situation.”
APS safety director Pope says that lockdowns are proven to keep people safe, noting, sadly, that the classroom doors in Uvalde were unlocked.
“Acts of violence are crimes of opportunities,” he says. “When an armed intruder comes through the schools, they are not coming through a locked door. I can’t tell kindergartners to run and have them know the difference between running away from a teacher [or another adult who is trying to help] or from a shooter. What we teach adults is that our first option is always going to be lockdown.”
That said, APS does train its staff to follow the “run, hide, fight” approach when they have information on, say, a shooter’s location or something else that might allow a teacher and students to escape. (Fighting, Pope says, could involve using chairs, desks and other objects as improvised weapons, or working with others to coordinate an ambush.) This protocol is taught to teachers only, so they know they have options. Fairfax County Public Schools provides similar guidance to its teachers.
Falls Church City Public Schools has developed its own training called “The First 12 Minutes”—referring to the average time it takes first responders to arrive at a crime scene—that empowers teachers, office workers and others to barricade, fight, distract or pursue other measures in the event of an active shooter crisis.
Lockdown drills have also raised concerns about their impacts on children’s emotional health. Having “drill after drill after drill”—fire, active shooter—is exhausting and anxiety-producing for many kids, says Amy Parks, director and owner of The Wise Family, a child and adolescent counseling practice with offices in Alexandria and Falls Church.
Having “drill after drill after drill” is exhausting and anxiety-producing for many kids.
“From my perspective it would be far more productive for just the adult in the room to understand the procedure,” she says. “The teacher can create scenarios [for young children] that state, ‘There may be times when this is like Simon Says and you must follow my directions exactly.’ At the end of the day, it’s not going to matter if they practiced [a lockdown drill]. What’s going to matter on a daily basis? If those kids slept through the night.”
What about teenagers, who know full well what the lockdown drills are all about? “If the school feels it will create calm and structure in the event of chaos, then yes, teens should practice lockdowns,” Parks says. “But should schools also be given the tools and personnel to support the emotional ruptures that may arise from potentially creating a sense of anticipatory anxiety in students? Most definitely.”
Parks worries about the stress on teachers, too. They’ve already been working through a global pandemic that put unprecedented strain on educators, pivoting to virtual school and then working to reopen and re-engage.
“For teachers and administrators, it’s even worse,” she says, “because the issue is not just their own personal safety, but their sense of profound responsibility. There’s no one in education because they want to make money. They do it because they love children and they love teaching.”
For Josh Folb, an Arlington high school math teacher, the solution to securing schools most decidedly does not involve arming educators. “I have no interest ever in carrying a weapon,” Folb says. “I will change my occupation before I carry a weapon. It changes the dynamic in the classroom when I go from being the person teaching to also being the person required—if it’s one of my students [causing the threat]—to take out one of my students. I would say that, among those who made education their first chosen profession, you would struggle to find a large percentage of those willing and qualified to carry a weapon.”
When we talk about the gun crisis, Folb says, “we’re trying to react to these weapons of war that our country has chosen to make available for sale. When someone closes their eyes and says, ‘What does a school look like?’ it’s really hard to balance the choice we’ve made to make these weapons available against what we want in terms of freedom in schools.”
The rationale for arming teachers comes from an acknowledgment that law enforcement can’t—or won’t—always respond to an active shooter situation in time to make a difference.
In Parkland, Florida, four years ago, and in Uvalde just this year, police officers on the scene did not engage, leading to dismissals and resignations and prompting many to question whether “a good guy with a gun” is an effective solution.
Many school districts across the country—Arlington, Fairfax County and Falls Church City among them—have relied at some point on school resource officers (SROs) to be present at schools as a criminal deterrent and as part of a front-line threat assessment team working in concert with school officials.
The concept of SROs goes back to the 1950s, when the idea was for schoolchildren to understand, respect and trust police officers as community servants. After the 1999 Columbine shooting, the role of the SRO shifted to one more akin to traditional law enforcement. In recent years, as many as 77% of public schools with 1,000 or more students employed an SRO, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
SROs have drawn controversy, however, because their presence has correlated with higher incidents of juvenile arrests and police brutality—often targeting students of color.
“The truth of the matter is that mass shootings at schools are very rare, and SROs do not prevent or stop them,” says Whytni Kernodle, president of the local advocacy group Black Parents of Arlington. “In fact, research indicates that the presence of SROs is detrimental to the welfare of Black, Brown and disabled children, leading to the increased criminalization of marginalized youth for childlike behaviors.”
During the 2019-20 academic year, Black students represented only 12% of Arlington’s high school population, but accounted for 31% of school suspensions, according to APS dashboard data. In June 2021, in response to such concerns, the Arlington County School Board voted to remove SROs from its public schools.
Wesley Palmer Bullock, a graduate of Ballou High School in D.C., is now a teaching assistant at Oakridge Elementary in Arlington. He finds it sadly ironic that the gun violence epidemic has caused White families to feel anxious about their personal safety—something Black families have endured for centuries.
“The schools in my neighborhood [in D.C.] were highly secured because the blatant violence and crime in the surrounding areas would spill into the school,” he says. “I think the metal detectors and X-rays were a way to allow the children to have a sense of safety. Arlington was a culture shock because the violence and crime were less obvious or advertised, versus my neighborhood, where it was tolerated to a point.”
Tracey Torino (not her real name), an Arlington elementary school teacher, says she never had any problem with SROs at the elementary level.
“It gave kids a chance to see a community worker and they became part of our school family,” she says. “But some people of color have had incidents with SROs. Maybe training could be done with SROs so all students could be made to be safe and equal.”
APS middle school teacher Sherman wishes the SROs were still in place. “They were in there every day, building connections,” she says. “Without them in the schools, I would feel a sense of panic if an event happened here, wondering how long it would take [for the police] to respond, and without that person [the SRO] already in the building and familiar with the building.”
“We are pretty much the victim pool. Every student in America feels like, ‘This could be me.’ “
The awful reality is that some mass shooters use high-powered rifles that can render significant casualties in short order, so even an on-site SRO might not have time to engage before a shooter inflicts unspeakable damage.
“If a shooting is in a main commons area,” says math teacher Folb, “and a school resource officer stationed out in the bus lane has to come inside and engage an assailant armed with a weapon of war, I’m not sure that 90 seconds will make a difference.”
As an alternative to SROs, APS is now working with the Arlington County Police Department to employ officers in what they are calling a Youth Outreach Unit (YOU), an off-site entity charged with developing outreach and education opportunities in the community, not the schools.
Inside the schools, unarmed “school safety coordinators” (wearing an intentionally neutral outfit of polo shirt and khakis) will now provide more eyes and ears during arrival and dismissal times. These safety coordinators will let schools take the lead on disciplinary actions, providing support as needed.
“Their job is to build relationships and to de-escalate,” Pope explains. “They’re not there to be criminal justice enforcement. They’re school division employees.”
Whether the school safety coordinators can successfully lower the temperature in a school to prevent violence remains to be seen. Regardless, some parents think the money devoted to security would be better spent beefing up mental health services. Research indicates that more than half of school shooters have a history of psychological problems, and most K-12 shooters target the school they attend or attended.
“My kids attended Claremont [Immersion Elementary School] and I know they had an SRO there and it was fine,” says Kelly Harvey, an APS parent of middle schoolers and a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. “I understand the intent in having a police officer be viewed as a friendly person. However, I would absolutely prefer that the money for SROs be used instead for additional counseling staff for the schools. I do not feel that SROs are the most effective way to prevent gun violence in schools. They are reactive; school counselors could be proactive.”
Moms Demand Action has been working with local school districts on its “Be SMART” campaign, which provides information about safe gun storage and how to ask other parents if they have firearms in the house before playdates. Fairfax, Alexandria City and Loudoun public schools have agreed to send campaign information home in students’ first-day packets. As this story went to press, the Arlington chapter of Moms Demand Action was working with the Arlington School Board in the hope that it would do the same.
Increasingly, youth are taking a stand. Students at nearly all of Northern Virginia’s high schools have staged walkouts or other demonstrations in recent years to protest gun violence and advocate for stricter gun control measures.
In June, just before the 2021-22 academic year ended, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine sat down with about 30 students from Wakefield High School to discuss the epidemic—his second such visit in the past four years.
He expressed his support for the recent federal gun legislation (which was also supported by Sen. Mark Warner) but admitted to sharing students’ skepticism about whether real change on gun violence is possible.
“We’ve been here before,” Kaine said, expressing frustration that Congress has not moved to legislate bans on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines (both measures he supports), “but we can’t give up.”
Amanda Niza González Mejía, Nahier Tafere and Isa Paley were among the Wakefield students who met with the senator, just days before they graduated. All three have been active in gun-safety advocacy at school, including organizing and participating in student walkouts and community protests.
“I think that being a student, your voice is especially important in the conversation because we are the ones that directly have to go to school every day, and not know if we’re safe,” Paley says. “We’ve seen, year after year, that we think it’s getting better, and it doesn’t.”
“We are pretty much the victim pool,” adds González Mejía. It’s a grim realization. “Every student in America feels like, ‘This could be me.’ ”
Tafere says she was grateful that Wakefield’s principal, Chris Willmore, made them feel heard throughout the school year. He supported their walkouts, listened to their suggestions and acknowledged their fears.
“I remember Dr. Willmore giving a whole spiel about ‘Don’t let apathy consume you,’ ” she says. “It’s so easy to get super upset and feel like your efforts aren’t amounting to anything. Something that’s helped us so much is just caring genuinely for our community.
The only way we got through anything this year was caring about our school and the halls and the people who occupy them.”
Kim O’Connell is a writer based in Aurora Highlands and mom of a son in high school and a daughter in middle school.