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Charlottesville School Board calls for gun legislation, briefed on student walkout plans
Charlottesville School Board- March 1, 2018
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Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Fre Halvorson-Taylor, a Charlottesville High School student representative on the city School Board, discusses gun violence in schools with School Board members Lisa Larson-Torres and Jennifer McKeever.
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Josh Mandell | Thursday, March 01, 2018 at 10:45 p.m.

Hastings vacates School Board seat

The Charlottesville School Board on Thursday discussed ways to make schools safer and the division’s preparations for student walkouts planned for March 14 at Charlottesville High and Buford Middle schools.

The School Board also unanimously approved a resolution calling on Congress and the General Assembly to regulate access to firearms in the interest of public safety, fund public health research on firearms and advance mental health support.

A Feb. 14 shooting that killed 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and an ongoing surge of activism by high school students across the U.S. to advance gun control legislation motivated the School Board’s discussion of school safety.

“We are all very scared ... and our teachers are scared as well,” said Fre Halvorson-Taylor, a Charlottesville High School student representative on the School Board. “We need your support ... and concrete legislation to make us feel safe.”

“I am incredibly proud and appreciative of the student leadership that has risen up everywhere, ... all over the country, to demand that their voices be heard,” said School Board member Sherry Kraft.

Superintendent Rosa Atkins said teachers and school administrators are working with student-led groups at Buford and CHS, “... to ensure that we are respecting voices of our students, and giving them the opportunity to exercise that voice in multiple ways.”

Atkins said Charlottesville police officers will be stationed at CHS and Buford on March 14 to protect students who walk out of class and staff members who accompany them. She said some teachers would want to participate in the protests as well.

“When we put on our teacher hats, we do not leave our passions behind,” Atkins said. “We are working [on a plan] for our teachers, but our first priority will be the safety of students.”

School Board member Leah Puryear asked Atkins if schools’ preparations for the walkouts would consider students and teachers who opposed the protests, or the gun control legislation they will demand.

“Are we looking at both sides?” Puryear said. “You may have teachers who are willing to be with students, but not [to join the] protest.”

“We are an inclusive community — that does not stop with this issue,” Atkins said. 

“This issue has many sides to it. There is not just one point of view,” she said. “What we are providing is safety and security for our students to express themselves. We are not telling them what those expressions must be.”

Atkins mentioned that the city schools are making ongoing security enhancements to school buildings. The division recently installed “buzz-in” entry systems at elementary schools and will replace classroom door locks at multiple city schools over the spring recess.

School Board member Jennifer McKeever said it was important for students, teachers and parents to report suspicious or troubling activity to school administrators and police.

“[Ensuring safety] is not going to be about locked doors. It’s not going to be about buzz-in systems. It’s going to be about relationships,” she said. “That is really how we can solve the problem, at least on the ground, before anything terrible can happen.”

Bekah Saxon, a UniServ director for the Virginia Education Association and mother of a Buford Middle School student, said in a public comment that Charlottesville students planning to participate in walkouts were looking to the School Board to join them in solidarity.

“The time for moments of silence and vigils is past. We need action,” Saxon said. 

“[Today’s students] have spent their childhoods learning that they aren’t safe; that danger awaits them at school, at church, in movie theaters, at concerts, on the steps of their public library. ... They aren’t looking for your permission, and neither are their parents,” Saxon said. 

Halvorson-Taylor and Nadiya Khaydari, another student representative on the School Board, said many of their peers at Charlottesville High School would like to participate in more lockdown and active shooter drills, and to be better informed during actual lockdowns.

“We are getting these worried messages from our parents [during lockdowns] asking, what’s going on, are you safe?” Khaydari said. “This makes things more difficult for us, and for our parents, who are trying to wrap their heads around what is going on in the school.”

School Board Chairman Juandiego Wade said the board would continue to discuss school safety measures at an upcoming work session. 

Charlottesville City Schools plans to host a community forum on school safety at 7 p.m. March 15 in Charlottesville High School’s B Commons. Speakers will include Gary Pleasants, Charlottesville’s deputy chief of police, and Dewey Cornell, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project.

Cornell designed the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines to help school administrators, school psychologists, counselors and teachers address small threats emerging from bullying and teasing by students before they escalate into a more dangerous situation.

In an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow, Cornell said schools and communities should concentrate on preventing shootings instead of altering their buildings to stop an active shooter.

“We can prevent shootings by doing a better job of following up on threats and helping troubled individuals before their problems escalate into violence,” Cornell said.

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In other news, Charlottesville School Board member Adam Hastings announced that he would resign from the board immediately after Thursday’s meeting, due to his family’s move to Albemarle County.

“Our family is expanding, and we need a home that fits our family’s needs. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find one within the city limits,” Hastings said.

Hastings was elected to the School Board in 2015. He is the dean of business, mathematics and technology at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Atkins thanked Hastings for his service to Charlottesville’s schools. 

“We will sorely miss you, but we look forward to working with you in other capacities,” Atkins said.

Wade said the School Board will appoint a new member to replace Hastings after advertising the vacancy throughout this spring. 

 

 

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