Security push: Fairfax Co. school board calls for vestibule in every school

The school board of Virginia’s largest school system is pushing the superintendent to prioritize upgrades to school security.

The Fairfax County School Board on Thursday night passed a motion directing Superintendent Scott Brabrand and his successor, Michelle Reid, to ensure that every county school has a security vestibule constructed at its entrance. The initiative was introduced by board member Melanie Meren, who said it will cost about $15 million.

Security vestibules provide another barrier for visitors to schools before they can enter the front office, Jeff Platenberg, the county’s assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services, told the school board.

WTOP has contacted the school system for data on how many schools already have the extra entrance hallway installed, and how many schools need them constructed.

School board members said the construction should be completed urgently to provide another layer of safety for students and staff. The discussion came days after a gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 students and two teachers. Students in Northern Virginia have called for action during school walkouts this week.

“When the tragedy happened in Texas, I just wanted to do what we could on the school side,” Meren said. “Gun violence is a public health crisis, just like COVID was, and in some ways it’s certainly a public health issue. Our mission is to educate children, but we can’t educate kids if they’re not safe and our staff (isn’t safe).”

The program’s completion could be paid for using local, state, federal and grant funding, board members said.

The school board initially discussed adding enhanced security vestibules to schools that don’t have them in December 2019. At the time, it unanimously approved a measure to have Brabrand identify a funding source and complete the initiative over three-year period.

Asked why progress hadn’t been made, Brabrand said the county had to focus on the pandemic.

“Our facilities’ focus came to efforts around mitigating the pandemic and all the associated issues with that,” Brabrand said Thursday. “As we’re coming out of this pandemic, we’ve got to return to some of the priorities that we had before, that we’ve actually talked about some of that in the budget today, things that were in a sense frozen in time.”

Platenberg said that the county will evaluate improving the timeline to finish the project “to ensure that we have these perimeters, these things in place to help round out our already effective and really critically collaborative security presence that we have for the safety of our students and our staff, and our community as a whole.”

School board member Megan McLaughlin said the board recognizes that it has the ability to address improving school safety, drawing parallels with the “mitigation” strategy of fighting COVID-19.

“We can’t prevent the virus; we do our best to mitigate it,” McLaughlin said. “And you can mitigate the loss of human life and innocent life.”

In a statement, Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said, “While we know security vestibules do not address the issues of improved gun control and additional mental health resources, it is one additional layer in protecting our students and staff.”

Also Thursday, the school board approved a $3.3 billion budget, which includes a 4% raise for all employees and adds a step increase to the pay scale for longtime teachers.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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