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Alexandria Police lights (staff photo by James Cullum)

An Alexandria middle school student allegedly admitted to her parents and police that she sent a threatening message to her school’s Instagram page last month, according to a recently released search warrant affidavit.

On Oct. 11 (Wednesday), at around 5 p.m., a now-unavailable Instagram account sent a direct message to an Alexandria middle school’s Instagram page and said, “Be prepared for October 12, 2023,” and then said that “11th and 12th grade upper school teachers” were targeted and that there were “many more who must suffer.”

“This message was then followed by 5 photos of what appeared to be stock images of firearms, (a) pipe bomb, and machetes,” police said in the search warrant affidavit.

There are only two middle schools in Alexandria — George Washington Middle School (1005 Mount Vernon Avenue) and Francis C. Hammond Middle School (4646 Seminary Road).

School staff alerted police of the threats, according to the search warrant affidavit.

Police contacted Meta, Inc., the parent company for Instagram, which provided a T-Mobile phone number. The number was matched with a home in Old Town, according to the search warrant affidavit. Police then interviewed the account holder, who said that the phone is used by her daughter, who is a student at an Alexandria middle school.

The student admitted to her mother and police that she sent the Instagram messages, according to the search warrant affidavit.

“(The juvenile) explained that she had utilized her black Google Android cellphone to send the threat and had used online sources in her cellphone to research the… photos,” according to the search warrant affidavit.

Alexandria City Public Schools would not say which middle school was targeted, or whether the student was disciplined.

“Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) does not comment on student matters,” Julia Burgos, the ACPS community relations chief, told ALXnow.

The first day at school at George Mason Elementary School, August 21, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) says school modernization and upgrades are the big focal point of the upcoming Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Budget, particularly at George Mason Elementary School.

In a release, Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt said the priority of the FY 2025 CIP Budget is modernization projects to meet projected capacity needs.

“We have made a strong commitment to cultivating a bright instructional future for our community, and our learning environments and facilities are vital to this priority,” said Melanie Kay-Wyatt in the release. “This proposed budget, which is in line with our projected capacity needs for years to come, is a testament to our dedication to providing ample room and flexibility to support student growth, learning and opportunity.”

The ten-year CIP is $314 million.

The budget summary says the FY 2025 CIP includes:

  • $67 million for the construction of George Mason Elementary School
  • $10 million for replacement and capacity additions at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology
  • $6 million for renovation of ACPS’ transportation facility

The lion’s share is for the George Mason project, but the budget item noted it was unclear if ACPS could afford new construction or only renovation of the school, which was built in 1939.

“GM has not had major systems updates due to its established timeline and place in previous CIP Budgets,” the budget said. “Reduction in scope directly impacts total capacity of school, square footage, area for amenities, potential for net zero, and introduces timing disruptions. [The] next step is to evaluate if new construction is feasible or if only a renovation is possible.”

A public hearing for the CIP Budget is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 13, at 6:30 p.m.

A tree planting commemorating the 80th anniversary of Charles Barrett Elementary School, Oct. 25, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

World War II was at its peak when Charles Barrett Elementary School first opened 80 years ago. In recognition of the anniversary, on Wednesday students and school officials gathered in front of the school, planted a baby oak tree and sang the school song.

The tree was donated by the North Ridge Citizens’ Association.

“There are so many people who have made our school community the awesome place for learning that is today,” said Principal Loren Brady, who has been at the school for four years. “Charles Barrett has the deep roots in the community that has helped to support us with useful energy.”

The school was built to accommodate the children living in the ParkFairfax development, which was built to relieve a wartime housing shortage, according to Alexandria City Public Schools. It opened with four teachers and 40 students.

“The school opened on Oct. 25, 1943, with desks and chairs borrowed from other schools,” according to ACPS. “Three weeks after classes began the Alexandria School Board voted unanimously to name the school after Major General Charles Dodson Barrett of the United States Marine Corps, an Alexandrian who was killed in the South Pacific on Oct. 8, 1943.”

The school expanded over the decades and now has 544 students.

“I’m so excited for you in your school community on this big moment,” School Board Member Ashley Simpson Baird said at the tree planting. “I know that Charles Barrett will be here for many, many more years to come and we look forward to all the great work you continue to do.”

Brady said that the school will celebrate the anniversary all year, and that school history is included in this year’s curriculum.

ACPS headquarters and clock (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Alexandria School Board’s preferred options to restructure itself are “dead” as-is, mostly due to a lack of engagement with the Alexandria City Council, City Council Member John Taylor Chapman told members of the School Board on Monday night.

“I think you’re losing Council by not really engaging with them right now,” Chapman told the City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting Monday night. “Given the response I’ve seen from my colleagues, I think you have even more of an uphill battle than you had before, and that’s not a good thing if this is supposed to be a process that’s collaborative.”

Earlier this month, the Board started evaluating restructuring options, including increasing term lengths from three to four years, reducing the number of School Board members — there are nine covering three districts — and whether there should be at-large seats.

The Board, in a work session, whittled down their preferred restructuring alternatives to three options, all of which increase terms to four years, maintain the nine-member structure and stagger their elections starting in 2027.

In order to enact these changes, the School Board must approve a resolution, followed by a City Council public hearing to revise the city charter. If the charter change is approved, the Virginia General Assembly will then vote on making the change official in the Virginia Charter.

Mayor Justin Wilson said Chapman summed up the Council’s feelings on the matter.

“I think Councilman Chapman read the tea leaves correctly about where we’re at right now,” Wilson said.

Chapman said that Board Members need to work one-on-one with their City Council counterparts to gain consensus before a plan is officially offered.

“I think that there are some overarching impacts to voters in our city,” he said. “And I think Council is keenly aware of that and we need to make sure that School Board is keenly aware of that as well. Unless those conversations happen one-on-one, I’m not sure everyone will feel comfortable that that is fully understood.”

School Board Chair Michelle Rief said that Chapman’s suggestion is “wonderful.”

“(The process) has been a little muddled, but here we are,” Rief said. “I think we do want to engage with you.”

The nine-member School Board has been elected in concurrent three-year cycles coinciding with City Council elections since 2012. The Board’s high turnover after the Nov. 2021 election saw six new members joining three incumbents, and members say school leadership suffers when more than half of the body spends upward of a year getting accustomed to their offices.

City Council Member Canek Aguirre didn’t mince words at a town hall meeting when he said that the School Board has too many members for a district with about 15,000 students.

“I’ve been very clear with my School Board colleagues that I am not supportive of changes unless they’re willing to reduce the number of members on their board,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre said other jurisdictions have either small boards with similar student populations or larger boards with larger numbers of students.

“Arlington County, which has about twice the size of our student population, has five members,” Aguirre said. “Loudoun County, which I believe has around nine members, has like three or four times the number of students that we have. To me, it’s absolutely ridiculous that we have nine people on there and this is part of what leads to so much discontinuity.”

The School Board members and their City Council liaisons are below.

District A

  • Board Chair Michelle Rief — Mayor Justin Wilson
  • Board Member Jacinta Greene — Council Member Canek Aguirre
  • Board Member Willie Bailey — Council Member Canek Aguirre

District B

  • Vice Chair Kelly Carmichael Booz — Vice Mayor Amy Jackson
  • Board Member Tammy Ignacio — Council Member John Taylor Chapman
  • Board Member Ashley Simpson Baird — Council Member Sarah Bagley

District C

  • Board Member Meagan Alderton — Council Member Sarah Bagley
  • Board Member Christopher Harris — Council Member Alyia Gaskins
  • Board Member Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi — Council Member Kirk McPike
Alexandria Police at Alexandria City High School’s Minnie Howard Campus. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria City Public Schools saw a 26% increase in student arrests last school year, and a disproportionate number of arrested students are Black males.

There were 58 ACPS students arrested last school year, according to a school safety report to be presented to the School Board on Thursday. There were also 32 weapons-related incidents, 100 students injured, 112 fights/assaults and five reports of sexual misconduct.

The news follows an ACPS report revealing that most of Alexandria’s middle and high school students feel unsafe.

There were 451 incidents requiring a police response within Alexandria City Public Schools in the 2022-2023 school year — 188 incidents in the first two quarters of the year and 263 incidents in the final two quarters. That’s a 17% increase over the 385 incidents in the 2021-2022 school year.

While 25% of ACPS students are Black, most of those arrested are Black males.

Middle School Arrests (27)

  • Black male — 14
  • Hispanic male — 4
  • Black female — 4
  • Hispanic female — 3
  • White male — 2

High School Arrests (31)

  • Black male — 18
  • Hispanic male — 6
  • Black female — 4
  • White male — 3
  • Hispanic female — 2

Weapons seized include a handgun, two BB guns, stun guns, tasers, knives, pepper spray and a box cutter.

ACPS made a number of safety improvements in the 2022-2023 school year, like new ID requirements for students, designating entrances and exits at schools, installing metal detectors, and renewing its partnership with the police department to provide school resource officers.

Incidents in the 2022-2023 school year include:

  • 112 fights
  • 116 incidents characterized as “other” (parking lot accidents, trespassing, mental health episodes, property lost/damaged)
  • 100 injuries requiring medical assistance
  • 32 confiscated weapons
  • 21 reports of controlled substances recovered
  • 19 threats (verbal/cyber/social media)
  • 16 missing student reports
  • Seven reports of suspicious activity
  • Five alarms pulled
  • Five reports of sexual misconduct
  • Three thefts
  • One report of possessing prohibited materials

There were 175 incidents reported at the Alexandria City High School campuses, 183 incidents at the city’s two middle schools, 43 incidents at K-8 schools and 50 incidents at elementary schools.

Alexandria Police Captain Courtney Ballantine at the George Washington Birthday Parade in Old Town, Feb. 20, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria Police Department Captain Courtney Ballantine just spent 10 weeks at the FBI National Academy, and spoke with ALXnow about his experience.

Over the summer, Ballantine lived in a dorm with a roommate at Marine Corps Base Quantico, worked out four times a week and studied the psychology of leadership, managing change, leading at-risk employees and  strategies for community partnerships. There were about 200 other law enforcement officers who participated in the academy’s 287th session.

Ballantine, now the commander of APD’s Community Engagement Division and Special Operations Division,  joined the department in 2000, straight after earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Radford University. He was promoted to sergeant in 2007, lieutenant in 2014, was made acting-captain in 2021 and officially became a captain in 2022.

Ballantine’s responsibilities include managing the department’s parking enforcement, traffic safety, special events, K9 units, crossing guards, school resource officers, and APD’s crisis intervention team program. He’s also the commander of the department’s peer support and resiliency group, which is designed to help officers cope with the wear and tear of the job.

He also now joins a list of APD graduates from the FBI National Academy, which includes Chief Don Hayes, Captain Monica Lisle, Captain Jerry Newcomb, Lieutenant Steve Carr, Lieutenant Mike May and Lieutenant Tara May.

ALXnow: Welcome back. How’d you get involved in this?

Ballantine: Thanks. I put in for this program a couple of years ago, and I’ve been on a waiting list. Eventually my name got pulled. You know, it’s always easy to put your name on a piece of paper saying you’re interested, but when your name is called you actually have to go and do it. It’s a reality check.

ALXnow: What was your life like at the academy?

Ballantine: It was 10 weeks of living in a dorm. I had a roommate from Bristol, Connecticut, and we shared a bathroom with two other people, and we did graduate-level coursework through the University of Virginia. In one particular training session, for instance, there were 40 other law enforcement executives across the world who brought their perspectives and experience to the conversation. So, if I didn’t learn something new in that course, I confirmed that we were already doing something right.

ALXnow: When I think of the FBI Academy, that opening scene in The Silence Of The Lambs with Jodie Foster running through the obstacle course comes to mind.

Ballantine: We watched that movie one night at the academy, and I actually completed that obstacle course at the end of the 10 weeks. It’s called the Yellow Brick Road, and it’s a 6.3-mile course, and the nine weeks of workouts leading up to that is the only reason I was able to successfully finish it.

ALXnow: What did you learn and how are you going to apply it in Alexandria?

Ballantine: What you have to understand is that the National Academy is like a utopia. You’re in the woods, where deer are frolicking in the pasture with bunny rabbits. You’re in a secured area on a secured military base. You have three meals a day, you exercise, you’re with people that want to learn and do better, and you’re learning about the world and how other people do what we do. And when I walked out, you’re hit with reality, like leaving college and facing the real world…

One of the biggest things I want to try to really expound on is wellness for ourselves. I’m currently the commander of our peer support and resiliency group, which we started in 2017. At the academy, I took the class for leading at-risk employees, which is about dealing with the wear and tear of the job, seeing all that accumulative trauma. The work can overwhelm the best of us and manifest in heart disease, depression, alcoholism, or even suicide. There’s a lot more that we can do and we have to make sure we take care of ourselves.

ALXnow: What was an inspiring moment for you at the academy?

Ballantine: I had to do a presentation in my class for leading at-risk employees. I asked a friend of mine working in the department to come down to present with me, and we talked about our ability to work together, our relationship and how we’ve helped each other through tough times, dark days and bright days. We’ve always been part of each other’s world to support each other, and when we were finished presenting, everyone in the room was clapping because they recognized how awesome that is, that we’ve both kept each other alive.

ALXnow: During your law enforcement career you could have left Alexandria. Why have you stayed?

Ballantine: I love my job. I absolutely love coming to work, being in this community working with the officers. After being here for 23 years, which is longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived, this is home.

Halloween on Lee Street in Old Town, October 31, 2022 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Updated at 5:45 p.m. — There is a slight surge of Covid cases in Alexandria, however a notification that a Halloween-themed event at a city recreation center this weekend was unfounded, according to the City.

On Tuesday, an Evite was sent to reporters announcing a Halloween festival at the Leonard “Chick” Armstrong Community Center, but on Wednesday another email was sent announcing that the event was canceled.

“In the wake of the latest surge in Covid-19 cases and the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders we are having right now we figure it is best to cancel the Chick Armstrong Rec. Center’s Halloween Fest,” the email said. “We are sorry to miss the fun but it is best to stay home and stay safe. So we hope to host next year once the vaccine is out and it is safer to gather again. We are sorry to have to cancel but health comes first. Stay healthy everyone and remember to mask up.”

Diane Ruggiero, the city’s deputy director of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities, told ALXnow that the city does not send evites, and that the message was sent from someone outside the city.

“Halloween Fest at Chick Armstrong Rec Center is scheduled for Saturday, October 14 from noon – 3 p.m.,” she said. “This free friendly spooky event will feature food, vendors, games, music, and a costume contest for the entire family. The event has not been cancelled due to Covid.”

Covid update

The Covid-19 pandemic was officially over in May, although the numbers of infected residents are climbing.

There were 614 new cases reported in the last 13 weeks, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The seven-day average for new cases is 15.86, far from the 36.86 seven-day average this time last year. The worst day of 2023 was on Jan. 5, when there were 59 new cases and the seven-day average was 41.57.

New Covid cases over the last 13 weeks in Alexandria (via VDH)

According to VDH:

  • There were 98 reported cases between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4
  • There were 92 reported cases between Sept. 5 to Sept. 11
  • There were 62 cases of children ages 0-9 who contracted the virus in the last 13 weeks
  • There were 18 new cases of children and young adults ages 10-19 who contracted the virus in the last 13 weeks
  • There were 18 deaths reported over the course of the last year, no deaths in the last six months and a total of 126 Covid-related deaths in Alexandria
Covid cases by age group in Alexandria over the last 13 weeks (via VDH)

There are also a number of Halloween-related events scheduled at recreation centers throughout the city next month, including:

  • Boo Fest at Charles Houston Recreation Center, Friday, Oct. 27, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. ($5 per person)
  • Family October Fest 2023 at Patrick Henry Recreation Center, Oct. 27, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. ($15 per person)
  • Family Masquerade Ball at Patrick Henry Recreation Center, Oct. 27, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. ($9 per person)
  • HalloTeen Night at William Ramsay Recreation Center, Oct. 27, from 7:30 to 10 p.m. (Free)
  • Family Costume Ball at William Ramsay Recreation Center, Saturday, Oct. 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. (Free)

School is back in session, and this year Alexandria City Public Schools wants to make sure kids go to class.

That was the message from outside George Mason Elementary School (2601 Cameron Mills Road) this morning, where Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt and School Board Chair Michelle Rief joined teachers and staff in welcoming back students. Kay-Wyatt said her priorities this year are on improving the welcoming culture within ACPS, academic achievement and absenteeism.

Kay-Wyatt said she didn’t get much sleep the night before school started.

“We really want to focus on making sure that all of our family and our students are welcome into our schools,” Kay-Wyatt said. “We’re also going to be focused on instructional practices and academic achievement. And then my third priority for the year is around absenteeism, and really focusing to get strategies and initiatives in place to make sure that our students are in school within school on time, so they can engage in all that we have to offer them.”

More than 15,000 ACPS students got up early for school today. In the wake of the pandemic, chronic absenteeism increased exponentially over the last several years within the school system.

It’s also the first school day for new George Mason Principal Christopher Finan.

“Our staff has been working very, very hard to get ready for this day,” Finan said. “Our teachers, our instructional assistants, our custodians, our cafeteria staff, our front office staff, everybody has been working very hard. I’m happy to say we are ready to go and excited to have students and staff back inside of our building. This year at George Mason we are focusing on our teams, leveraging all of the passionate, dedicated and skilled individuals, our staff, our families, our community members to ensure that we support student success across the board.”

Rief asked that parents reach out to the School Board as it embarks on next year’s budget.

“We welcome your input as your School Board,” Rief said. “We have a very full agenda this year and we want to hear from our parents.”

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A rendering of the completed Douglas MacArthur Elementary School at 4633 Taney Avenue (via Facebook)

(Updated 8/11) After years in development, City and Alexandria City Public Schools leaders will cut the ribbon of the refurbished Douglas MacArthur Elementary School next Friday (August 18).

The project took three years of planning and two years of construction, and the 154,000-square-foot school at 1101 Janneys Lane will open for the first day of classes on August 21.

During the last two years, MacArthur students used the old Patrick Henry Elementary School as swing space. The new school has an 840-student capacity and ACPS projects the student population to stay at around 775 students over the course of the next decade.

MacArthur’s three-level “Forest” plan sets the school back from Janneys Lane, putting classrooms at the rear of the building and providing a view of nearby Forest Park. The $75 million project was initially planned to wrap in January, and construction delays elicited criticism from Vice Mayor Amy Jackson.

Jackson has one child who graduated from MacArthur in the swing space and another who will attend the refurbished school.

“I was concerned that construction wasn’t getting off the ground fast enough,” Jackson told ALXnow. “My children wanted to see the school one more time before they started, but I realized that we could still get on the property. So I took a video, as much as it caused angst with the community and school board, but when I’m asking staff several times and can’t get an answer, I took it to the public and sure enough the ball then got rolling the fencing was put up on the perimeter and they got the ball rolling.”

The event includes a brief tour and will be held from 9:30 to 10:15 am. Remarks will be made by Mayor Justin Wilson, School Board Chair Michelle Rief, ACPS Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, ACPS Chief Operating Officer Alicia Hart and MacArthur Principal Penny Hairston.

ACPS will share the event on Facebook Live.


Good Monday morning, Alexandria!

⛈️ Today’s weather: A chance of showers and thunderstorms, then showers and possibly a thunderstorm after 8am. High near 79. South wind 11 to 13 mph, with gusts as high as 21 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New rainfall amounts between a quarter and half of an inch possible. At night: A chance of showers and thunderstorms before 11pm, then a slight chance of showers between 11pm and 2am. Mostly cloudy, then gradually becoming mostly clear, with a low around 60. Northwest wind 6 to 9 mph. Chance of precipitation is 30%.

🚨 You need to know

Summer vacation is within sight, as this is the last week of the 2022-2023 school year for Alexandria City Public Schools. The last official day of school is Thursday, June 15.

All ACPS students and children are still eligible to get free meals when they go to a Summer Breakfast and Lunch program site every Monday to Thursday from June 26 to July 10. Meal distribution will not occur on Tuesday, July 4.

ACPS Summer Breakfast and Lunch Program (via ACPS)

The schedule for breakfast and lunch is below.

ACPS Summer Breakfast and Lunch Program schedule (via ACPS)

📈 Friday’s most read

The following are the most-read ALXnow articles for Jun 9, 2023.

  1. Southern Towers gets a visit from the director of the Federal Housing Finance Administration (2754 views)
  2. UPDATED: Police activity shut down Mount Vernon Avenue Bridge earlier today (1989 views)
  3. ALXnow’s top stories this week in Alexandria (570 views)
  4. ACPS: George Mason Elementary students and teachers could change schools mid-year (538 views)

🐦 Tweets of note

📅 Upcoming events

Here is what’s going on today in Alexandria, from our event calendar.

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