Virginia schools increasingly eye weapons detectors to keep firearms out of buildings
Schools supplementing safety measures with weapons screening detectors
Abigail Zwerner, an elementary school teacher in Newport News, was honored in the Virginia Senate Chamber on Feb. 2, 2023 a month after being shot in her classroom by a six-year-old with a firearm. Zwerner was shot in her hand and chest. No students were injured. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)
Across Virginia, public school leaders are considering new measures to address violent threats to students and staff — starting at the front door.
However, the proposals, including the addition of weapons detectors to school buildings, come with a cost and call into question the efficacy of existing measures in place in many divisions.
Efforts to curb the bringing of weapons into schools gained fresh urgency for many after a 6-year-old student shot his teacher at a Newport News elementary school in January.
Alexandria City School Board member Christopher Harris during a March 16 meeting said Virginians are living in “unprecedented times,” with shootings occurring at colleges, secondary and primary schools, and boards cannot ignore those threats.
“Sometimes the decisions we make may be uncomfortable for them [students], but I’d rather them be uncomfortable than to be unconscious … and it will happen if we don’t do the things that we need to do to kind of mitigate these things,” said Harris.
Alexandria City Public Schools is one of the latest divisions to pilot the use of high-tech security screening equipment to scan for weapons. Weeks before the board considered the measure, the school division had been sent into lockdown when a 14-year-old student brought an unloaded handgun into Alexandria City High School.
“The pilot weapons abatement program was proposed by staff to the School Board as an additional layer to our existing measures,” said Alicia Hart, chief of facilities and operations of Alexandria City Public Schools in an email to the Mercury. “Staff believes that a robust safety posture (that includes new and existing mitigation measures) is the best way to promote safety within school facilities.”
Schools typically use several measures to ensure student and staff safety, including security cameras, visitor and emergency management systems and armed door alarms. Weapons detectors, which have traditionally been used in large event settings like theme parks and sports arenas but are now starting to supplement and in some cases replace other tools in schools nationwide, are new.
To date, at least 10 school divisions in Virginia, including Alexandria, Portsmouth and Manassas City, are considering or already have plans to install weapons detectors.
In the four years before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2,000 Virginia students on average committed violent offenses in schools annually, with 1,910 cases on average related to weapons, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education. Those figures also include cases that occurred in special education and alternative centers where some divisions send students for disciplinary issues.
Offenses dropped during the pandemic when schools were closed for in-person instruction. During the 2020-21 school year, 132 of the 135 violent offenses recorded involved weapons.
The most recent high-profile case of student violence in Virginia was the shooting of Newport News teacher Abigail Zwerner in January. After Zwerner filed a $40 million lawsuit accusing school officials of gross negligence for allegedly ignoring multiple warnings on the day of the shooting, attorneys representing the division urged the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the shooting should be treated as a workplace injury because violence in the schools is an “unfortunate reality.”
Abbey Clements, a teacher who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 and went on to help found nonprofit Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence, pushed back against the idea that violence in schools is an “unfortunate reality.”
“Kids are going to be impulsive, angry, and with real challenges, but to just accept that schools are going to be violent and sort of blame the kids for this, that’s quite sad when this is clearly on the shoulders of the adults who’ve chosen not to make our kids lives the priority,” Clements said.
In Virginia, school division and local government spending on tools like weapons detection systems comes as schools face teacher shortages and a 5% teacher pay increase ordered by the General Assembly.
According to the National Education Association, a union representing teachers, Virginia is below the average national teacher pay of $68,499. The average teacher in Virginia is paid $62,104. Low pay is also a factor that has contributed to low job satisfaction for educators in the commonwealth, according to a November report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
“I worry that we’re just throwing money at that ‘shiny new thing,’ especially when we have these teacher shortages, and we really have to look at the well-being and care and growth of kids and what they need to thrive,” Clements said.
Portsmouth Public Schools spent $1.3 million to fit its six middle and high schools with 10 weapons detectors and train its staff in their use after a 2021 pilot, said spokesperson Lauren Nolasco. She said the cost per system is approximately $130,000.
Nolasco said that following the Newport News school shooting and increased reports of gun violence, the city is considering equipping the rest of its 17 schools and alternative education centers with the same system, a project estimated to cost $4.7 million.
“We want to make sure we are taking appropriate and proactive steps to keep our school campuses as secure as possible,” wrote Superintendent Elie Bracy III in a Jan. 18 letter to the city council.
Bracy continued, “While I recognize this is a large request, especially ahead of a budget season, I know there is no better investment our city can make than in protecting our children. Given the widespread gun violence we have seen firsthand in our city this year, I also know our community joins me in wanting to find solutions that keep schools safe.”
While Clements said some educators support investments in safety measures like detectors, she hopes school leaders will instead consider using investments to improve neighborhood communications and increase mental health resources in communities and schools to help students choose not to pick up a gun.
Weapons detectors and other tools like furniture that turns into hiding places and bulletproof backpacks normalize the situation, she said — a worrisome trend.
“A teacher can change a life, a counselor can change a life, and I’m not sure that these things that we’re putting into place in terms of safety, that they’re going to work as well,” Clements said.
The divided General Assembly failed to agree on several measures related to safety in public education during the last legislative session.
Among the proposals killed by the Democrat-controlled Senate were Republican-backed bills that would have authorized school boards to hire K-9 teams to detect such items as explosives and firearms and allowed law enforcement agencies to employ a school protection officer to work in the local school division.
The chambers did agree to one measure: a law that creates a $300 tax credit for gun safes.
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