Loudoun and Prince William schools establish stricter security measures

After a months-long review of school safety practices in Loudoun, school administrators have announced that heightened security measures will focus on exterior door security and visitor identification.

All visitors to a school during classroom hours will have to stand in a designated area and display a government-issued ID before entering the building, regardless of who they are or how often they visit the school, officials said. The verification will be conducted through an Airphone system installed at the front entrance to all county schools.

Suzanne Devlin, safety and security supervisor for Loudoun public schools, said she was impressed by the county’s security policies when she joined the administration in July 2012 and launched a review of its security protocols.

“We have worked for the course of a year, reviewing what was in place and where we thought we needed to shore
up. . . . . We started in July, and then, in December, Sandy Hook happened,” Devlin said, referring to the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“That marked yet another sea change, and confirmed for us that we needed to keep doing what we were doing,” she said.

The safety protocols in school systems have evolved to address many potential threats over the past decade. As national terror alerts fluctuated in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, schools began to practice emergency lockdown procedures. More recently, in the aftermath of mass shootings on school campuses, most school systems and local law enforcement agencies in the Washington area have added “active shooter” drills to their training routines.

Officials say the cost of such measures is an unavoidable necessity. After the Newtown shootings, Prince William County added 15 full-time school resource officers to county middle schools at a cost of $2.5 million, according to county records. Officers had already been assigned to the county’s 11 high schools.

Before Sandy Hook, the county’s budget plan would have cut security positions at public schools. But Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said at the time that the tragedy had shifted his thinking.

“It’s not going to be cheap,” Stewart said of expanded security, “but I think it’s going to be worthwhile.”

Prince William Police Chief Stephan M. Hudson said it will take months to hire and train the new officers. In the meantime, Hudson has asked patrol officers to have more of a presence at county schools.

“The little additional presence . . . that helps everybody have a little more security,” Hudson said.

Loudoun will strictly enforce its no-exceptions approach to visitor access, Devlin said. Even if the visitors are parents who are known to school staff members, they won’t be permitted inside if they can’t prove who they are.

“The protocol is already there, but people forget about vigilance,” she said. “My communications challenge is to remind people every September that these are our objectives, the things they need to pay attention to, even if it’s tedious and painful.”

All exterior doors to schools will be closed and locked at the beginning of the day and will remain locked until students are released. School staff members have been trained to feel empowered to make decisions about who should or should not be given access to a building, Devlin said. If something doesn’t seem right, staff members stationed near the entrance are told to consult with supervisors before letting someone inside.

“I come from years of law enforcement, and it’s what police do every day,” said Devlin, who worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years and was Fairfax County’s deputy chief of police before going to work for the Loudoun schools. “You measure people up, and you do it pretty quickly.”

If visiting parents or community members are frustrated by resulting delays, “we’re not tolerating it,” she said. “We’re here to protect your child. No one should be angry about that.”

Given all the recent incidents of mass shootings — Devlin also cited the Sept. 16 killing of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard — communities need to be especially patient with the occasional inconveniences caused by heightened security, Devlin said.

“That’s the world we’re living in, and we’re taking it very seriously,” she said. “We don’t ever want something to happen, and you only get one chance. Otherwise, you wind up telling the story of why it happened. And I don’t ever want to tell that story.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.

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