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‘It could have been much worse’: A plea after HCHS’s graduation

SoVaNow.com / June 14, 2018
(The following letter as presented by HCHS teacher Colleen Barnes to members of the School Board on Monday — Ed.)

Good evening. My name is Colleen Barnes and I am an English teacher at Halifax County High School. I’m here to speak to you tonight about school safety.

As I’m sure everyone present knows, there was a fight during graduation on Saturday, May 26. The ceremony was disrupted, and several people were later charged or arrested due to their involvement in the altercation. This incident was embarrassing and unfortunate, to say the least. However, it could have been much worse.

One of the graduates involved in the fight was arrested and charged not only with disorderly conduct and assault and battery, but also with receipt of a stolen firearm and carrying a concealed weapon. Let me repeat: carrying a concealed weapon.

While the weapons charges stemmed from a previous incident, the student easily could have been armed again during graduation. How do I know he could have brought a weapon into the school with him? Because Halifax County High School made no attempt to screen graduates, family members, and other visitors to the school for graduation ceremonies.

As a member of the high school faculty who was sitting on the floor of the gym during graduation, this terrifies me, and it should terrify you.

The school possesses metal detectors, and yet on Saturday, May 26, just like almost every other day, they were nowhere to be seen. This is an egregious oversight.

In addition to this lack of safety equipment, we didn’t even make an effort to track who entered the building during the day, or keep track of where they were. While I do realize that large numbers of people attend graduation ceremonies, and recognize that it can be hard to keep track of everybody, people were everywhere on graduation day. Families were let into the school through back doors (which are supposed to be locked), graduates came and went without supervision, and there were people sitting in the gym well before the front doors were officially opened.

This atmosphere of general chaos adds to the lack of solemnity surrounding the day, and significantly increases the chance that a person with ill motives can plan and carry out an attack.

A number of police were present that day, which is a good precaution, but in and of itself, this is not enough. Instead of simply standing and watching the crowd go by, they could have been helping man metal detectors and screening attendees.

Three school shootings took place in the United States just in the week before our graduation. These incidents resulted in three injuries and 10 deaths. Sadly, these were by no means isolated incidents. At least 23 shootings resulting in injury or death have taken place on school campuses as of June 1, 2018 (numbers vary based on sources – I have included the lowest total).

However, despite the news of the previous week, Halifax did not take the easiest, most common-sense approach to ensuring the safety of its faculty, students and families. All visitors to the high school should have been made to walk through the front doors, and through metal detectors.

Speaking for myself, I do not feel safe attending major events at the school when I know that basic safety precautions such as using metal detectors are not being taken. Please note, I am not asking the school to change any major policies, buy lots of new equipment, or hire more staff. What I am proposing is that we at least make some common-sense changes to procedures surrounding sporting events and large gatherings such as graduation.

As I stated earlier, there are metal detectors presently in storage in the high school. Staff members are already required to serve game duties and attend graduation, and there is no reason we can’t help with crowd control and supervise the use of metal detectors, while we’re there. It also costs no money to strictly enforce the “No Passes Out” rule at sporting events, which is currently variable depending on who is working. At worst, the school would have to purchase more signage informing visitors of the new policies.

Traditionally, the school system has reacted to serious or shocking events instead of being proactive with our policies (let’s not forget the confusing lockdown situation a few months ago). I’m begging the School Board to work with the high school administration and relevant safety personnel to make some changes this time before anything terrible happens.

I can foresee the objections to a policy of using metal detectors already: it will take extra time, be inconvenient, and visitors may object, or feel like their privacy is being violated. But do these complaints matter more than the lives of our teachers and children?

It’s already a tough time to be in public education, and I don’t want to fear for my life on top of everything else I deal with on a daily basis. Yes, metal detectors may be inconvenient, but personally, I’d rather be slightly inconvenienced every day of my life than be dead.





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