Prince William Co. School Board, supervisors talk security, budget surplus at joint meeting

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Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors seemed eager to fund security increases at county high schools and middle schools in a joint meeting with the School Board this week, telling the school division that the county had over $41 million in surplus fiscal 2022 tax revenue coming to schools.

Good will abounded between the two governing bodies at their joint meeting Wednesday, as Prince William County Schools leadership touted a slew of security increases already implemented and on their way to county schools, as school shootings have continued to make regional and national headlines.

School officials shared more details on their plans to install Evolv Express lanes in at least some county high schools during the 2023-24 school year, but said that the effort would first come with an outreach process to students, families, school staff and others.

According to Alliance Technology Group, the company behind the “magnetometer” system, the security lanes use artificial intelligence to target weapons and nothing else. They also don’t require people entering to slowly walk through or remove things from their person like a traditional metal detector. In December, Manassas City Public Schools agreed to pay the company over $435,000 to lease four of the lanes for four years, with plans to install the lanes at the city’s only high school, Osbourn High School. Prince William County Schools officials did not say how many schools they hoped to start the program in, but said the systems would likely be installed after the first few weeks of the 2023-2024 school year.

Division security staff took a trip to see the lanes in action in Charlotte, North Carolina, and according to school system Chief Operating Officer Vernon Bock, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system saw a dramatic drop-off in guns recovered from school buildings and a decline in vaping and drug use. According to a December media report from Charlotte, the public school system there saw 30 guns discovered in buildings during the 2021-2022 school year. As of mid-December in 2022, only two had been found during the 2022-2023 year.

“How soon can you get it here?” Brentsville District Supervisor Jeanine Lawson asked after hearing about the reductions in North Carolina.

“Oh, Supervisor Lawson, we have a great budget request for you,” School Board Chair Babur Lateef responded.

Bock said the “engagement process” in Prince William would begin next week, with the division getting lanes on loan for six weeks so that the division could do demonstrations with school principals to start.

Further security measures

But division leadership had more to share on their beefed-up security posture. The school system is spending $6.8 million on upgrading CCTV systems in all 94 county schools, replacing radio equipment, carrying out crisis drills and implementing a Raptor alert system next year, by which any school staff member with a specific app on their phone can immediately trigger a lockdown procedure on school grounds and notify police and school security at the sight of a serious threat.

Schools will also be installing steel boxes outside that allows police and fire access to school building master keys. Officials referenced the massacre at Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman shot and killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School as police scrambled to locate keys to classrooms. Even once they secured the keys, though, police waited to enter the classrooms where children had been shot, taking over an hour to actually engage the shooter. Prince William Police Chief Peter Newsham said he was confident that a police response from his officers would look far different. The first officer on scene, he said, is responsible for establishing command and then entering the building and stopping any active shooter.

“We do have tools out in the field … in the event that we had to enter the classroom or any other building in this community, we have tools, breaching tools, that would allow us to get in and confront any threat,” Newsham told the two boards Wednesday night. “The Prince William County Police Department is very well-equipped for this kind of threat.”

School leaders also brought the supervisors up to speed on efforts to help students in need of counseling support or who might be prone to acting out in school, detailing a three-tiered trauma-informed support system that tries to teach all students basic social-emotional wellness tools and also offers mental health support after incidents in the community around schools that might spark problems for students.

Both sides of the meeting also expressed support for the county’s school resource officer program, which has one assigned police officer at every county high school and three middle schools. As of now, a team of resource officers rotates between the division’s 14 other middle schools, but Newsham said that he’d like to add more SROs as staffing within the police department increases.

A memorandum of understanding between the police department and school system that was revised in March now more clearly delineates disciplinary roles between schools staff and police, leaving “all minor criminal behavior committed by a child in the school setting” to be handled “administratively or disciplinarily by PWCS administration.”

Counselors, conflict resolution

Five months into the current school year, Newsham said, there were five arrests made at schools this year and two guns recovered from school buildings.

Given the size of the school system — over 91,000 students were enrolled in county schools to start the year — Newsham called it “pretty remarkable to have that few arrests.” In all of the 2021-2022 school year, 14 arrests were made and nine guns were recovered at county schools.

But the two guns, he said, were two guns too many. And school system staff said there were other problems for kids that were showing up. Without sharing any data on incidents, Associate Schools Superintendent Denise Huebner told the boards that the division “really” needs help with substance abuse and has seen an increase in middle school students who lack conflict-resolution skills, leading them to fights or behavior that’s either harmful to themselves or others. At the school level, that’s where school counselors, social workers and SROs come in, working closely together to try to get help to students who need it and to “partner with parents.”

County staff also gave a brief presentation on its new community safety initiative aimed at stemming community violence. County officials said the initiative would hopefully be fully staffed in the fiscal 2024 budget and could ultimately lead to the funding of violence interrupters.

And without offering details on how much the county would be budgeting for schools in the upcoming fiscal year, Michelle Attreed, the county’s chief financial officer, did say that the county had a $75 million revenue surplus for fiscal 2022, which ended last June. The county would soon be receiving its split of that, worth over $41 million. The county and school system have a tax revenue split agreement that commits 57.23% of revenues to Prince William County Schools.

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