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Mayor Wilson says its time to step back to reassess safety in schools

Mayor Justin Wilson says its time to take a step back and reassess Alexandria’s approach to student safety.

In a joint City Council meeting with the School Board on Monday night (June 13), Wilson said that the community needs to be educated on how the city and school system plan to make schools safer.

“I do think part of this conversation is to step back, because I don’t think there’s many communities around the country that invest the amount that we do in the very ways that we do in our kids, and clearly we still have kids slipping through the cracks in this institution. That’s sobering for us all.”

Wilson and Gaskins presented the Board with a draft memo that will start a “rigorous engagement” program to talk with youth and parents to “learn what is at the root of youth trauma and violence, and act.”

Wilson said that it’s been an interesting last several weeks since the fatal stabbing of Alexandria City High School Senior Luis Mejia Hernandez on May 24. He also said that there is no one single solution, but that a coordinated approach on improving students safety is about creating a public process and approach to solving the issue.

“I don’t mean to be negative on this, but I’m doubtful that in this effort we will determine some kind of magic thing that we have never thought of,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’ll have anything like that. But I think it’ll be a conversation around how we provide services, scale, scope, how we target things, and where the need is, and I hope that as we have that conversation, we’ll learn more about the effectiveness of what we do today, rather than unnecessarily (try) dramatically new things.”

Council will discuss the memo at its meeting tonight (June 14).

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., who announced his resignation last Friday, did not attend the meeting, and is out of the office until June 21.

Board Chair Meagan Alderton said that the Board needs to improve its efforts to inform to community on ACPS activities.

“I agree,” Alderton said. “I do think we need to do a better job as a Board of educating the community about what actually happens in our schools, because I think that could also shift the conversation. People are making guesses all the time. It becomes counterproductive to what we’re actually trying to do. I second that 100%. I think that there’s an educational component to all of this, so that people just know what’s happening.”

Gaskins said that the memo does not specifically outline City departments for certain projects, since it is the duty of the city and its multiple departments to work collaboratively. She also wants there to be a student summit at some point in the near future to discuss coping with the pandemic and violence-related traumas.

“I think it really is a starting point and call to action to give space for us to listen to our young people, hear what they have to say, be able to evaluate what we’re doing, identify the things that we’re not doing and then put in place a plan that we are holding ourselves accountable to,” Gaskins said at the meeting. “I think this is really an opportunity to think about: How do we activate multiple departments? How do we activate and normalize every resource we have available to ensure the health and safety of our young people?”

School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi said he would do everything to help Council in the effort.

“Politicians and and leaders are looked at as good ones when they can articulate and speak, but we really need some time for people how much we should be listening as well,” Elnoubi said. “Thank you so much for doing this. I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.”

Former Sheriff Dana Lawhorne watched the meeting from home.

“I’m glad that our City Council and School Board had a robust discussion tonight about the safety and wellbeing of our youth,” Lawhorne said. “I’m encouraged by the plan put forward by Councilwoman Gaskins and Mayor Wilson. We all need to do our part to support it.”

According to a school safety report released in March, 18 ACPS students were arrested in the first two quarters of this school year, in addition to 41 reported fights/assaults and 13 seized weapons. The weapons seized include a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray. Students also filmed dozens of fights and posted them on social media.

At tonight’s meeting, Council will also consider designating former School Board Member Chris Lewis as its designee to the proposed 16-person School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group. That group will make a recommendation this fall to the interim-Superintendent (or new Superintendent) on the future role of school resource officers at Alexandria City High School and Francis C. Hammond and George Washington Middle Schools.

Separately, Council will also consider passing a gun violence prevention resolution, which encourages the school system to “review school curriculum, safety protocols, and professional development” related to gun safety and suicide prevention, as well as the scheduling of School Board work sessions before the start of the 2022-2023 school year to review those measures.

According to the memo:

In the short-term the Alexandria Police Department will continue its work to investigate recent acts of violence and provide appropriate security interventions to make future acts of violence less likely. To sustainably support the resiliency of our youth and prevent violence, we need to listen as much as we talk. We must engage a diverse range of stakeholders to listen to the experiences of our young people and center their voices, learn what is at the root of youth trauma and violence, and act. With this rigorous engagement, we can design and refine the systems and reforms required to:

  • Address youth trauma and mental health
  • Coordinate across sectors to identify challenges, needs, and opportunities
  • Develop sustainable strategies to align services and existing initiatives
  • Identify metrics and transparent processes to hold ourselves accountable
  • Target investments at identified gaps
  • Prioritize equity

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