Monday, April 15, 2024

After gun was used in suicide inside Salem High, officials discuss school safety measures

VIRGINIA BEACH — Hearing a rumor about a gun at your child’s school is a parent’s worst nightmare. Confirmation that your child’s classmate used that gun to commit suicide there is shocking.

That’s what happened on Thursday when a teenager shot himself at Salem High School.

According to the Virginia Beach Police Department and the city’s public schools system, the student and the gun were never a threat to the more than 1,700 other children, staff and parents who were also on school grounds.

In the day’s following the tragedy, Southside Daily spoke with Virginia Beach City’s Public Schools spokeswoman Eileen Cox about what officials do to protect students and staff from danger.

“We have a number of safety measures in place,” Cox said. “Unfortunately we live in a time where there are no absolutes. So what we can do is our very best every day to make sure we are using the best safety practices available to us.”

Students, parents and staff locked down

There were 200 parents at Salem High School on Thursday shadowing students as part of the annual event “A Day in the Sun” when the school went into internal lockdown mode around 8:10 a.m.

Doors to classrooms were locked, the lights were turned off and the blinds were drawn. Students and parents were moved to a corner of their respective classrooms and the VBPD came into the school to investigate the shooting, Cox said.

The call originally came into the VBPD as a student suffering a “cardiac arrest,” said police spokeswoman Tonya Pierce. School officials told local media that the teenager suffered from a “medical condition,” leading them to move into an external lockdown for several hours before releasing the students for the day at noon.

Unlike an internal lockdown, an external lockdown allows students to move freely around their classrooms, but prohibits them from moving about the building. During that time no one was allowed to enter or leave the school unless they were qualified personnel, Cox said.

“That allows police the time and space that they need,” she said. “A lockdown isn’t unfamiliar [for students] because we practice them multiple times a year. One of the safety measures is the lockdown process, and that worked exactly as it was supposed to.”

When a Southside Daily reporter visited the school around 10:30 a.m., officials were allowing parents to come into the school through the student entrance and leave with their children. Around 11 a.m., the VBPD announced that they were officially conducting a death investigation at Salem High School.

It wasn’t until Friday that rumors of a gun being at the school were confirmed to parents by the school’s principal Matt Delaney via email and voice messages sent through an automated system.

“I do want you to know that as a result of the police investigation, officers have now confirmed to us that the student’s death was due to an intentional act committed by the victim, and was the result of a gunshot wound,” Delaney said. “We have no reason to believe that the student had any intent to harm others.”

Cox could not confirm the number of times in recent years that Virginia Beach authorities have been called to a public school in connection to a gun or weapon; however, she said that Thursday’s incident isn’t the first time a student has brought a firearm to a city school.

“In the past, have we had guns at schools? Yes,” she said. “Is it a widespread problem? No.”

Other security measures

Salem High School is one of Virginia Beach’s 82 public schools that does not have metal detectors at their entrances.

Only one of the city’s schools is equipped with metal detectors — Renaissance Academy, an alternative education school for students who haven’t been “successful” at other public schools, Cox said.

Some of the academy’s students have been charged with crimes, while others have been reprimanded for behavioral issues.

Metal detectors are allowed on at Virginia Beach public schools, but aren’t required. They can be implemented at the discretion of school authorities, according to the city’s school policy.

“The administration possesses the authority to take all reasonable, necessary and proper measures provided by law and school board regulations to safeguard the students, employees and property of the school division, including, but not limited to, the use of stationary or mobile metal detectors,” the policy reads. 

“The purpose of the metal detector scan is to prevent and deter weapons and explosive devices from entering the schools. At all times, the degree and nature of the inspection are not to go beyond what is necessary to allow staff to discharge its responsibility,” according to the policy.

Although VBCPS continually reviews and audits its own safety practices, Thursday’s suicide doesn’t necessarily mean that the school system will decide to implement metal detectors, Cox said.

As of now, the schools depend on their VBPD resource officers and security cameras to spot danger, as well as the student’s ability to say something to staff if they hear threats or see them posted on social media.

“Research shows that relationships have more of an impact [than metal detectors],” Cox said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 4 percent of America’s schools reported using metal detectors for random checks as a measure of security for in 2013 and 2014.

All 15 Virginia Beach middle schools and 12 high schools have a school resource officer assigned to them. Those resource officers are trained at the VBPD academy and are also able to respond to calls at nearby elementary schools, Cox said.

When needed, schools are able to call additional VBPD officers to assist in a crisis.

In addition, the schools employ security assistance personnel who are trained in de-escalation and situational awareness. They work at the security desks where visitors sign in before being given access to the rest of the school, Cox said.

The schools are also armed with internal and external security cameras throughout the buildings and grounds. According to the NCES, about 75 percent of America’s schools reported using security cameras as a way of monitoring movements.

“We routinely audit and review our safety practices, and will do that again,” Cox said.

Mental health, depression an active conversation

Salem High School students returned to school on Friday morning. VBCPS provided them with crisis counselors to talk to and they are being encouraged to “share their feelings as needed,” Delaney said in his message to parents.

On Friday, students, teachers and community members took to Twitter with the hashtag #SalemStrong expressing their concerns for students and condolences to the teenager’s family.

Conversations about mental health are not new to Virginia Beach public schools via initiatives like the Lighthouse program, which addresses suicide and depression, Cox said.

Those conversations won’t stop in light of Thursday’s tragedy, she continued, adding that part of the city’s strategic planning moving forward has been addressing how the school system can better help students with their social and emotional development.

“We recognize we have a much bigger role in helping a child develop — not just academically,” Cox said.

If you are struggling with depression or mental health concerns, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Send news tips to adrienne.m@wydaily.com or via Twitter @amayfieldSSD.

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