How safe and secure are we?

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AHS, despite many headlines early in this decade, has undergone a radical transformation from a school known for its violence to one with a new, peaceful reputation. A large part of this is due to the measures AHS has adopted in recent years to make the school and region more safe and conducive to students’ education.

AHS is probably one of the safest schools in Fairfax County. Our school and the principal take it very seriously,” said AHS Safety and Security Specialist, Chris Tippins.

The administration has made it a priority to reinforce safety and security in the past decade. Old contingency plans, which were established in the 1960s, were amended in 2003 to handle school safety and security in case of events like 9/11.

The D.C. sniper attacks caused a rise in safety concerns at AHS, resulting in several new measures to secure the school, such as lock downs and secure-the-building drills, in case of intruder threats. The school added parking lot surveillance after multiple incidents of gang-related violence in 2002 and 2004.

In the past few years, AHS has had less than 20 major incidents that have caused safety and security concerns, which is a huge improvement from previous years.

Several measures make this security possible. At the school level, AHS has a crisis management team in place to handle everyday security, as well as ensuring student safety in unusual circumstances.

“Since I am ultimately accountable for everything that goes on at AHS, I work with a team of experts who allow me to stay on top of things and keep our students’ safety and security a primary objective,” said AHS principal John Ponton.

The administration performs several preparatory drills, such as lock downs, tornado drills and fire drills, to train the students to react in a variety of situations.

“We perform regular tabletop exercises with the county government to train adults and students in the building for these drills. The better trained you are, the more smoothly you’re going to respond to the situation,” said Ponton.

Technology also helps this team do their job. “We have cameras placed around all major entrances and exits, and on the periphery of the school as well,” Tippins said. These cameras were installed in November 2004, and have proved very efficient in preventing trespassing incidents in the school.

AHS, like every other Fairfax County high school, is also subject to county rules and regulations about safety.

“The FCPS Office of Safety and Security ensures the security of all the people in FCPS buildings,” said Tippins. “This office deals with procedures in case of outside threats such as pathogens and chemical spills, and also provides the personnel support we may need in case something happens.”

AHS’s strategic geographic location also assure its safety. Its proximity to the Ravensworth Fire Station ensures that EMS can be here in less than five minutes in case of something serious.

“There are constant police patrols on Route 236, and units can also be called in from West Springfield, Ravensworth and Franconia, if necessary,” said Ferraris.

Yet, many responsibilities of the security team revolve around diffusing potentially dangerous situations.

“Even though we’re the go-betweens between the security staff and the students at the school, we also work as mediators trying to make sure the students have someone to talk to so they don’t resort to violence,” said KW Williams. “We listen to these students, do a lot of counseling, and diffuse the situation. The students need to know that if they need to talk to someone, we’re there for them.”

So, are these measures effective?

“This is my 30th year in FCPS and fifth year at AHS, and I think we’re doing a great job,” said Ponton.

“I have worked at Mount Vernon High School and West Potomac High School before, and in my experience, AHS is the safest school I have worked at,” said Tippins.

Yet, despite everything the AHS security team is doing, the students define how safe the school really is. “Ultimately, it’s the kids that make the school secure,” said Tippins. “We have almost 2700 students in the entire school, and 98 percent of them are here for a good education. Our job is just to keep them secure and make sure they are where they’re supposed to be.”