Updated at 3 p.m. on June 6: A family member of Luis Mejia Hernandez walked the stage and received a standing ovation from the students, staff and families in attendance at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena.
Guillermo Romero took took the diploma for his nephew, kissed it and raised it to the sky.
Hernandez was fatally stabbed in the parking lot of the Bradlee Shopping Center on May 24.
Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., said that Hernandez’s life was tragically cut short on by a senseless act of violence.
“We were looking forward to seeing Luis cross the stage today,” Hutchings said.
Hernandez was recognized by ACHS Executive Principal Peter Balas as a hard worker.
“I want to take a moment to ask everyone to hold Luis Hernandez in their thoughts — a Titan who should be here with us today,” Balas told students. “To the Hernandez family, please know that you are forever a part of the Titan family. We are with you now and we always will be. We will hold you in our hearts during this challenging time, and we thank you for entrusting your son to us for his education.”
More than 800 ACHS seniors walked the stage. This is the first graduating class of Alexandria City High School since it changed its name from T.C. Williams High School. It was also the first indoor, in-person graduation for the school in three years.
Balas said that students in this generation are taking their mental health seriously, and that the past few years have been full of traumatic events.
“These past few years have not been normal or usual in any way,” Balas said. “I hope you can look back and remember that you were there for each other, lifting each other up, as you made your way into the world.”
The story and caption incorrectly said that the person who received the diploma was Hernandez’s father. It was a family member.
In the wake of last week’s fatal stabbing of Alexandria City High School student Luis Mejia Hernandez, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. has advised School Board members to not talk with the media.
No arrests have yet been made after the May 24 incident, which resulted from an afternoon brawl with 30-to-50 Alexandria City High School students in the McDonald’s parking lot of the Bradlee Shopping Center.
Hutchings wrote the Board the following note:
You may receive media inquiries regarding recent events. Please do not speak about the incident. I’ve spoken with our communications team to please refrain from using the term ‘no comment’.
However, please say ‘I will refer this media inquiry to our communications team’ then forward to Julia (Burgos with ACPS communications) and Kathy (Mimberg of ACPS communications). Thanks a million!
Sent from Dr. Hutchings’ iPhone
Many School Board Members and City leaders tweeted about Hernandez’s murder, including Mayor Justin Wilson who wants to implement immediate solutions.
Wilson said that he talks to the media “all day long,” and that elected officials report to the voters and are accountable to them.
“I appreciate that each of the seven members of Council offer diverse perspectives on the issues facing our community,” Wilson told ALXnow. “I would hope that the media would reflect that in coverage, based on conversations with each member.”
The incident occurred on the same day as the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which gained national attention and placed responding officials under intense media scrutiny.
School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi was the only Board member to respond to ALXnow’s request for comment.
“My position hasn’t changed on this,” Elnoubi told ALXnow. “I understand that Dr. Hutchings may be worried if we say something, it may be attributed to the division. We don’t work for the division though, we oversee it and we work for the people of Alexandria, we represent The people. As elected officials, we are free to choose how, where and what to communicate with the community, which gets to hold us accountable. In times like these, the community needs to hear from its leaders and policymakers.”
School safety and transparency have been key issues within ACPS under Hutchings, This is the second instance this year that Hutchings has asked the Board to not talk to the press — both times due to controversial subjects.
In March, the school system was under scrutiny after right-wing outlet National Review broke a story accusing ACPS of covering up a suspected sexual assault case. Hutchings then told Board members to pass on all media questions to ACPS communications — as he said Board members need to be careful out of concern for the school division.
In the meantime, ACPS is also mapping out its future with school resource officers with the high school’s four campuses and the city’s two middle schools.
In April, Hutchings scolded the Board for their edits of a staff report on his plan to create a School Law Enforcement Advisory Group, which will make recommendations for SROs in schools to Hutchings by this fall.
Hutchings emailed Board Members that there were legal issues with their making edits outside of a Board meeting, and that the edits were “extremely problematic,” “inappropriate,” and “disrespectful.”
At the time, Elnoubi responded to Hutching’s directive by telling ALXnow that he will not be a rubber stamp for Hutchings and the school system, and that he is accountable to his constituents.
School resource officers were briefly defunded by City Council last summer, and the first few months of the school year were punctuated by violent events, including two robberies, three drug offenses, a bomb threat and 13 pulled fire alarms. There are no SROs at Alexandria City High School’s King Street campus since both officers were placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS.
ACPS has wrestled with an increase in violent crime incidents this school year. 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.
Earlier this year, Hutchings co-authored the book “The Anti-Racist Counternarrative Public Education Needs Now: Six steps for escaping the trap of attacks on ‘critical race theory’.” In the book, which Hutchings will not discuss with media, Hutchings wrote that school systems should avoid being racist by abolishing policing practices.
Police Chief Don Hayes says that police are needed in schools.
“I think they’re needed now,” Hayes told ALXnow. “My hope would be one day we won’t be needed, that we won’t have to go to the schools, and that will be great. I think that’s what they’re working towards, as far as putting this community advisory group together, and figuring out what can they do better to deal with all the safety issues that they might be having in the schools. We’re willing to help them with that so that one day we don’t have to have SROs in the schools, and they can be taken out of the schools and be back out in the neighborhoods, and we can really continue to do our community policing part.”
On Friday (May 5), ACPS announced that it was awarded the Silver Prize in the National School Boards Association Magna Awards program for The Identity Project campaign, as well as a 2021 Gold Medallion Award from the National School Public Relations Association.
“We are excited that the ACPS Identity Project has been honored with a Magna Award,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said in a statement. “This recognizes the contributions from our students, families, staff and community who came together to work on this historic change. With student voices at the center, we mobilized to educate our community about the past and to chart an inclusive path for the future. We now have school names that are reflective of the values of Alexandria City Public Schools.”
Alexandria City High School is the largest high school in Virginia. The school was previously named T.C. Williams High School for 50 years, and became known around the world for the 2000 movie Remember the Titans, which is the story of the 1971 state championship-winning varsity football team that found greatness by working through racial adversity.
T.C. was named after segregationist Thomas Chambliss Williams, who was the superintendent of ACPS for 30 years. Williams worked against the integration of schools, and required Black students who wanted admission to previously all-white schools go through an application process. Only 75 Black students (about 3%) were allowed to transfer to formerly white schools by the time Williams announced his retirement in 1962, and that was three years after the city officially desegregated schools.
Naomi L. Brooks Elementary was previously named Matthew Maury Elementary School for nearly a century, after the Confederate leader and oceanographer. Brooks was a beloved teacher for 25 years at Charles Houston Elementary School and Cora Kelly Elementary School.
It took more than a year to solicit name proposals from the community and for the School Board to whittle them down to replace the names of T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School. The schools were officially renamed last summer, putting an end to an issue that residents tried to address for decades.
The project was deemed so successful that Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. highlighted it in a book he recently co-wrote with Georgetown University professor Douglas Reed: “Getting Into Good Trouble at School: A Guide to Building an Anti-racist School System.“
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“Extremely problematic,” “inappropriate,” and “disrespectful” was how Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said School Board members handled edits of his plan to create a School Law Enforcement Advisory Group.
In a March 9 email, Hutchings scolded a majority of School Board Members — Michelle Rief, Ashley Simpson-Baird, Adbel Elnoubi, Kelly Carmichael Booz and Chris Harris — for editing his SLEP proposal. He said that such “behind the scenes” operations raised transparency issues by violating the Virginia Freedom Of Information Act.
“I believe that this approach is extremely problematic, inappropriate, disrespectful and most of all not aligned with our legal board practices,” Hutchings wrote. “SLEP is not an action item for the board and I’m not understanding why this is being presented to me this way. I believe some of the points in the document are welcome revisions; however, I hope that this will not be shared with our team tonight at the meeting.”
The 16-person SLEP advisory group will begin meeting in May or June to develop feedback recommendations for Hutchings on the future of the controversial school resource officer program within ACPS.
The group will send back their recommendations in a report in December. ACPS is now in the process of going through a solicitation process to hire a meeting facilitator.
The email was sent shortly before Hutchings and staff presented the Board with the first draft of the SLEP proposal on March 10. The edited draft circulated by the Members have some recommendations that stuck around in the final proposal, including adding a SLEP link to the ACPS website for community information.
At that March 10 Board meeting, Hutchings said: “This is our first time having a public discussion about this partnership and having a public discussion around this particular information that we’re sharing out and we’re sharing that with the board.”
The Board is allowed to discuss their positions on issues with each other outside meetings.
“I didn’t come here to uphold the status quo or be a rubber stamp,” Elnoubi said. “There’s nothing wrong with members sharing and discussing ideas outside the board room as long as as long as it’s in a one on one setting to abide by the ‘Sunshine Laws’ and that’s what we did. In this situation here when I see a proposal that continues to marginalize people of color like me, I have an obligation to speak up.”
According to the Board’s operating procedures:
The School Board transacts all business at Board meetings, and does not vote by secret or written ballot. However, nothing prohibits separately contacting the membership, or any part thereof, of the School Board for the purpose of ascertaining a member’s position with respect to the transaction of public business, whether such contact is done in person, by telephone or by electronic communication, provided the contact is done on a basis that does not constitute a meeting under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
Board Member Tammy Ignacio was not pleased to receive the edited document in a Board-wide email before the March 10 meeting from Harris, who asked that Board members look at it for discussion. Ignacio said she was not privy to the edited recommendations, and that they equated to “backstabbing” from her colleagues.
“We can’t openly expect to bring data forward when we’re backstabbing our own Board and making decisions and writing memos and editing them for our own specific purpose,” Ignacio said at the March 10 meeting. “And if that is the way that this Board is planning to run, I don’t want to be a part of it. Transparency. Do not stand up here in front of our public and our children and our staff and talk about transparency when you’re going behind the backs of other Board members and creating memos and editing them. It is unacceptable. It is unprofessional.”
Booz then failed in a 4-4-1 vote to get the advisory group to report directly to the Board instead of the Superintendent.
Simpson-Baird said on March 10 that ACPS has one chance to get the issue right.
“We have one chance to get community input and go through a very thorough process — that we all know didn’t happen over the past year,” she said at the March 10 meeting. “I know that’s where a lot of our our passions come from.”
On March 14, Hutchings provided the Board with a refresher on their operating procedures, which include not talking to the media.
Hutchings’ full March 9 to the School Board is below the jump.
The Alexandria School Board gave its blessing to Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. on Thursday night (April 21) to form an advisory group to make recommendations on the controversial school resource officer program within Alexandria City Public Schools.
The 16-person school law enforcement partnership (SLEP) advisory group will be made up of students, ACPS administrators, Alexandria Police and members of the community. The group will evaluate the partnership between ACPS and police for the school resource officer program, and also on school safety initiatives, and deliver a report in December.
Hutchings does not want the meetings to be public or recorded, although he said minutes from the meetings would be provided to the Board. A link with SLEP information on the ACPS site is also in development, Hutchings said.
“What we want to make sure is happening is that there are authentic conversations happening ,” Hutchings told the Board. “We need people to be able to feel as if they can have these real discussions without the additional ice or heat or criticism that will come out of that, because people wanting to watch a long meeting like that (are) typically watching to give some type of constructive criticism. Typically, not always.”
Last month, a report revealed that 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.
Member Kelly Carmichael Booz said that compiling the report behind closed doors raises transparency issues.
“I completely understand the challenges and the concern about making sure that folks feel comfortable to have open and frank conversations,” Booz said. “We also are in the business of transparency and making sure that we have access to the information that’s being provided. I do think we need to strike that balance there.”
Last month, Booz failed in a 4-4-1 vote to get the SLEP advisory group to report directly to the School Board instead of the superintendent, which would have made it a more public process.
Alicia Hart, ACPS executive director of facilities and operations, said that the decision to record meetings will be determined by a meeting facilitator. No facilitator has yet been awarded the contract, although she expects a number of proposals to come in soon.
“I’ll honestly have to defer to the external facilitator in terms of how they feel the meetings are best handled,” Hart said. “I don’t know if that’s the standard for our advisory groups or committees within the division. I don’t want to offer that it would be open to the public. I’d rather the external facilitator have the opportunity to present their framework for how they believe the meeting should occur.”
Board Chair Meagan Alderton said that certain meetings should be public, and others not, although the Board did not come to an official position on the matter.
“I do believe there is a balance to strike,” Alderton said. “We should probably select certain meetings that the public could come and sit in on it just to have that available, just because I don’t think we want to leave any room for being accused of not being open and transparent in that way.”
Hutchings said that there will be a link to the ACPS website regarding the SLEP advisory group.
The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were defunded last summer and then brought back in October after Alderton and Hutchings pleaded for their return in the wake of numerous violent incidents with weapons in schools.
There have been no SROs at Alexandria City High School since both SROs at the school were placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS. Alexandria Police continue to rotate officers in and out of the school on a daily basis.
The SRO program is currently funded through June 30, 2023.
Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings is making a case for critical race theory (CRT) and abolishing policing practices, although not within the school system he manages.
In an opinion piece published by EducationWeek on April 6 (Wednesday), Hutchings said that school systems need to employ six steps if they want to “embrace” building an anti-racist school or school system. In “The Anti-Racist Counternarrative Public Education Needs Now: Six steps for escaping the trap of attacks on ‘critical race theory’“, Hutchings wrote that most public school educators never heard of the term before it became politicized during the 2020 election cycle.
“It has become so extreme that many states are banning books, rescinding policies, and dismantling curriculum,” Hutchings wrote. “School systems are faced with political strategies to dismantle equitable practices and policies and take our public educational systems back to before the civil rights era if we do not pay attention and react methodically, strategically, and unapologetically.”
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, heavily campaigned against critical race theory, which is an increased study into racism and its effects on society. ACPS has not taken an official stance on CRT, and said that Hutchings’ comments do not reflect the opinion of the school system.
“This is an opinion piece from a national perspective and it speaks for itself,” ACPS School and Community Relations Chief Julia Burgos told ALXnow.
The op-ed lists six “scalable” recommendations, which Hutchings wrote are “imperative for educators to embrace.” The recommendations are:
- Know our history
- Commit to racial equity
- Dismantle instraschool segregation
- Abolish policing practices in schools
- Prioritize strategic thinking and planning
- Demonstrate courage and boldness
Hutchings wrote that ACPS works closely with police to keep schools safe, and that a half hour of “social-emotional learning time” has been incorporated into the school division.
“Policing is a controversial national discussion, and schools are not immune to this controversy,” Hutchings wrote. “Discipline for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students has mirrored some policing practices that have contributed to the prison pipeline for decades. From zero-tolerance policies to arrests in schools for disciplinary infractions, U.S. public schools have harmed BIPOC students by implementing disciplinary policies derived from policing. A focus on the social and emotional needs of students, including restorative practices, instead of suspension and expulsion practices, is key to abolishing policing in schools.”
Policing in schools has been a controversial subject in Alexandria, after the City Council went against Hutchings’ recommendation and defunded school resource officers. Funding for the $800,000 SRO program was diverted toward mental and behavioral health resources for ACPS, but after a marked increase in violent events going into the 2021-2022 school year, Hutchings’ successfully pleaded with City Council for their reinstatement.
Many of the points are included in Hutchings’ recently released book, which he wrote with Georgetown University professor Douglas Reed. The first chapter of “Getting Into Good Trouble at School: A Guide to Building an Anti-racist School System” is devoted to the T.C. Williams High School name change to Alexandria City High School, which was accomplished through a lengthy community process. The book has eight chapters on various subjects, including “Know Your History to Rewrite Your Future”, “Commit to Racial Equity”, “Make School Discipline Different From Policing” and “Choose Good Trouble: Be a Bold and Courageous Antiracist School Leader.”
Updated at 6:30 p.m. — The Alexandria School Board on Monday (March 14) was advised against talking to the media, as the Board received a refresher on their operating procedures.
Board members were told that they have to be careful of what they say out of concern for the division as a whole, prompting some members to question toeing the line of Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. and staff.
The Board’s operating procedures stipulate that any questions from media related to personnel, student matters, school programs and exceptional/emergency events should be fielded by Board Chair Meagan Alderton and the ACPS communications team. School Board members are discouraged against discussing division-wide topics in an effort to minimize the fallout of inaccurate information going out into the community.
Hutchings said that the media has taken his comments out of context and that it’s important that media questions be forwarded to his staff. He also said that media training is available for Board Members.
“I think you always have to, because their (media’s) time is actually time-limited,” Hutchings said. “I can just tell you, I get bombarded from people at events as soon I step off the stage, and I say, ‘You gotta wait until I talk to my team first, because I want to make sure what the pros and cons are of it.'”
Member Kelly Carmichael Booz was confused as to whether the Board is being coerced against talking to the press.
“I keep hearing mixed messages that we shouldn’t talk (to media), and that it should go back to the Board Chair and that it should go back to communications and we shouldn’t be giving our individual opinion,” Booz said. “Then I hear we’re going to get media training.”
Board Member Abdel Elnoubi said that, as elected officials, Board Members are accountable to their constituents and can talk to media.
“We are accountable to our constituents,” he said. “Officials should be able to talk to our community openly without filtering anything if we don’t have to, or if we don’t want to.”
Board Member Willie Bailey, a former City Councilman, said that talking to media is a “slippery slope.”
“Let me tell you something,” Bailey said. “I’ve played this game. I am not talking to the media. If my constituents want to beat me up for that, they can, but that’s what we got the communications team for. If the communications team wants to tell me what to say, and this is the question that the media is asking, and this is an hour before they turn on the camera and put the mic in my face? What are your questions? This is all that I’m going to answer — this question — and leave it alone, but I’m going to speak to the communications team just to make sure.”
The work session was not listed on the School Board Meetings page, as required by their own operating procedures, and it was not recorded for public use. A recording of the media-related portion of the meeting is below.
Meeting facilitator Laurie Cromwell also said talking to media is a slippery slope, and told Board Members that they should — out of concern for the division — revert to the School Board Operating Procedures protocol when talking to the media.
“You’re going to have to use your judgment on that,” Cromwell said. “But I think if you have the time, I would definitely do that just so your comfort level in responding is consistent and cohesive with what communications is saying, or what other people are saying that are involved in leadership.”
Alderton did not speak on the matter at the meeting, and did not respond to questions via email.
Eighteen Alexandria City Public School 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.
That’s according to a School Safety Data report to be presented to the School Board on Thursday. The report reveals 18 arrests within ACPS between August and December, 34 injuries, and also a sexual assault allegation at the Alexandria City High School-Minnie Howard campus in October.
“Upon notification of the allegation, the alleged aggressor was removed from campus,” ACPS said in the report. “This student was placed into virtual learning as APD investigated the allegation. This student was officially charged with an offense related to this allegation on January 13, 2022.”
The report sheds light on a period that led School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. to plead with City Council to reverse course on its decision to defund the school resource officer program. The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were briefly defunded last year when Council redirected $800,000 from the program toward mental health resources for students.
There were 71 incidents at Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School during the reporting period, 59 incidents at ACHS, 49 incidents in elementary schools, and 12 incidents in K-8 schools. Some fights at ACHS and George Washington Middle School were even recorded by students and posted on Instagram.
“Fighting is really not the reason why we need school resource officers in our school buildings,” Hutchings told Council in October. “We are not trained to deal with guns or violence or gang initiation, or things of that nature in our school buildings.”
SROs were brought back in October, but two months later the two officers at Alexandria City High School were placed on leave after a former student alleged having “sexually inappropriate conversations” with them while attending ACHS, according to the Washington Post. The allegations are still under investigation. While there are no SROs at ACHS, police rotate in and out of the school throughout the day.
Incidents also include two robberies, three drug offenses, a bomb threat and 13 pulled fire alarms.
The report will follow a staff presentation on the formation of the School Law Enforcement Advisory Group, a 12-person body that will act as a liaison between the Board and police on the SRO and public safety issues.
Safety data the last two quarters of the year won’t be available until another report is released this summer.
Not included in the report is an allegation that a Francis C. Hammond Middle School student was caught selling marijuana joints to classmates last month. The middle schooler was searched and found to be in possession of 10 joints containing marijuana, and told police that she was supplied by an Alexandria City High School student, according to a search warrant.
The hour-long presentation at Alexandria City High School focused on new programs to offer free associate degrees to Alexandria City High School graduates, improving graduation rates for Hispanic males and sticking to the ACPS 2025 Equity For All Strategic Plan. The speech did not focus on more controversial issues, such as Covid-related mandates or public safety issues within the school system.
“Our strategic plan takes us through 2025 and I know it sounds like it’s far away, but we’re already in 2022,” Hutchings said. “And we will still have much to accomplish to fulfill all of these accomplishments.”
Hutchings said ACPS is being liberal in its approach to absenteeism during the pandemic.
“Some of our students are really being faced with a lot of trauma,” Hutching said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that we are providing the social and emotional supports for our students. And we’re doing that through our counseling services within our buildings. So, we’re going to continue to have social workers working with our families. We will continue to do school visits, and our administrative teams and staff will continue working with families who are experiencing truancy.”
By 2024, Alexandria City Public Schools will begin offering a “cradle-to-career” program to Alexandria City High School freshmen, where they will take specific dual enrollment courses to earn a free associate’s degree from Northern Virginia Community College by the time they graduate. The program is being done in partnership with NOVA, George Mason University and Virginia Tech. Hutchings said that the associate’s degree pathways under consideration include information technology, psychology, business information technology, engineering, biology, and education.
“This results in a NOVA associate’s degree that will not only be given when they graduate from Alexandria City High School, but it will align for full transferability to both partnering four-year universities, and that’s George Mason University and Virginia Tech,” Hutchings said.
Hutchings said that the beginning of this school year was unusual and challenging. Without getting specific, he said ACPS needs to make progress on improving graduation rates for Hispanic males and said that a division-wide early warning indicator system is in the second phase of development.
The system “utilizes key performance indicators to proactively engage intervention for students placed at risk of experiencing poor academic outcomes,” Hutchings said.
Hutchings also announced that ACPS will also release its second Equity For All Climate Survey to families, staff, and students in grades 6-12 on March 11.
“We have made progress and yet are mindful that it’s there’s still much work to be done,” he said. “Our team and our students have shown great resilience throughout the past two years and I am encouraged by the progress that we’ve made so far to dismantle some of our racial inequities and to meet the individual needs of our students.”