In the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, local parents were critical of the Asheville City Schools’ response. Although Superintendent Denise Patterson sent out two emails to the school community and posted four videos on YouTube, many parents felt those efforts danced around a very serious issue rather than facing it head-on.
“The superintendent has gone way above and beyond to say ‘safety’ in a lot of the video updates,” one parent who chose to remain anonymous told Xpress. “But as a parent, I can’t trust a facility to take care of my child unless I know that they can at least say what [the issue] was: It was a school shooting.”
And though parents did get a chance to ask questions during a March 6 forum in the Asheville Middle School gym, school officials say safety concerns limit their ability to give details of security arrangements. “Unfortunately, we can’t give you the layout of all of the plans, because those are confidential,” Patterson explained at the event.
In the first four days after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 students and staff dead and another 17 injured, print, television and social media had offered an unceasing stream of responses to the tragedy, ranging from thoughts and prayers for the victims to calls for repealing the Second Amendment. Across the country, parents looked to those in charge of their children’s education for reassurance concerning school safety.
And on Feb. 18, Patterson emailed the following letter to students, staff and families:
“Asheville City Schools is a great place to learn, discover and thrive. We have 10 excellent schools that offer amazing learning opportunities for our students. We look forward to seeing all of our students and staff returning to school and work on Monday, Feb. 19,” she wrote.
“Additionally, we want to make sure that you know safety for our students and staff is a top priority. Our goal is for students to attend a safe learning environment. Our district safety team collaborates frequently with district staff and community agencies. Asheville City Schools is committed to excellence in equity, excellence in learning and excellence in safety. Thank you for your continued support.”
But while the letter did emphasize safety, parents picked up on what Patterson didn’t say: There was no mention of Parkland in particular, school shootings in general or any concrete steps for improving student security. In a representative Facebook response, parent Anne-Fitten Glenn wrote, “This makes me question that the school system actually is working to provide safety for our children. You clearly are not offering a safe place for all of us in the Asheville City Schools community to discuss our fears and emotions.”
Nearly three weeks after the Parkland shooting, the community finally got that opportunity via the March 6 forum at Asheville Middle School. The questions and answers heard at the event, combined with further communications from the school system in advance of the forum, provide insight into the challenges and opportunities of managing school security.
Parent Lindsey Altsheler was clear about her reason for attending the forum. “I think there hasn’t been a whole lot of information provided to parents up to this point,” she told Xpress. “We started getting some things sent home, but they’ve just been very generic. I don’t think we’ve had a chance to ask specific questions.”
Between the Feb. 18 statement and the March 6 forum, the administration sent out one additional mass email and released four safety-update videos on YouTube. And though the second email did specifically mention the district’s lockdown drills as “the appropriate response during an active shooter situation,” it still didn’t reference Parkland specifically or offer contact information for concerned parents.
In the first video, Patterson also avoided using the words “school violence,” referring only to “unfortunate circumstances that have taken place in schools across the country.” That held true for the other videos as well, though they did offer details about the school system’s collaboration with the Asheville Police Department. This information may not have reached most parents, however: The district serves roughly 4,400 students, and at press time, the most watched safety-update video had had fewer than 650 views.
Ashley-Michelle Thublin, executive director of communications for the Asheville City Schools, declined to comment when asked about negative parental feedback after Parkland. Instead, she cited the videos as an example of the district’s outreach. “Dr. Patterson is really just focusing on what Asheville City Schools is doing,” she said. “She’s making sure that our community knows that our students and staff members are safe.”
The parent safety forum represented a new approach for the school system, notes Shane Cassida, executive director of student support services. “What we’re doing here tonight is probably the best change we can make, which is opening the dialogue and hearing and listening to one another,” he told the roughly 40 parents and community members in attendance.
After opening remarks by Patterson, four officials shared their own safety updates: Cassida, district Safety Officer Jeanne McGowan, Director of Student Services Eric Howard and Lt. Geoffrey Rollins of the APD, who oversees the district’s school resource officers. Each speaker answered questions submitted by parents during a “homework dinner” — a free meal where kids got homework help while parents learned more about community resources — that immediately preceded the forum. All four officials went into considerably more detail about specific changes to the Asheville City Schools’ safety efforts than had previously been shared with parents.
McGowan mentioned a planned expansion of the system’s existing “restorative practices” (social science techniques aimed at building community and fostering healthy conflict resolution) as a way the district hopes to prevent future security incidents.
Cassida revealed that all threats will now be investigated jointly by school and police personnel. He also discussed plans to hire additional mental health staff in response to greater demand across the district, including at Asheville Primary School. “We weren’t just seeing an increased number of mental health issues with our students on a daily basis, but the traumas and events that students were dealing with were dramatically affecting their classrooms,” Cassida explained.
Howard was the first to directly address the issue of school shootings, saying that the district treats all threats it receives as potentially real. “We have a difficult job trying to decipher what is a hoax or a kid just talking and what is serious,” he noted. “Talk frankly and honestly to your children about the seriousness of school safety, because we’re holding everyone accountable the same way.” In some cases, however, continued Howard, counseling may be a more appropriate response than an arrest or other police action.
The speakers also took questions that focused on school shootings. The first audience member to speak raised the scenario of an attack during specific vulnerable periods. “What if a crazy, enraged man shows up with an assault rifle when the kids are at recess and shoots every kid out there in six seconds?” she asked. McGowan responded by saying that in the next several months, principals at every school in the district will assess their outdoor assembly areas and develop lockdown drills that begin in those locations.
Other parents asked about the details of such drills, procedures for reuniting students with their parents or primary caregivers in the event of an attack, and the district’s position on concealed carry for teachers. Cassida said the latter issue hadn’t come up in any Asheville City Schools meeting, while Rollins earned the greatest applause of the night by responding, “I think that’s a horrible idea — and I say that as someone who has to carry a gun every day to work.”
At least one parent felt the forum was a step in the right direction. “I think it was good,” said Altsheler. “A little more time would’ve been nice, but I think it’s a start.”
Despite the open dialogue, however, Patterson explained that practical concerns limit the school system’s ability to share information. “We don’t want to reveal to the public any exit doors that our students may take or anything like that [in order to] protect our students.”
Joseph Hough, assistant superintendent of auxiliary services and programs for the Buncombe County Schools, agreed about the need to balance transparency and operational security. For example, he was unable to go into great detail about the county’s “tabletop situational drills,” in which staff members discuss scenarios based on actual school shootings. “If we put too much information out there, some of the readers could be those evildoers,” he noted.
But Hough also acknowledged the importance of direct interaction with the school community to establish trust and increase safety. He regularly travels to parent-teacher organization meetings to speak about the county system’s security efforts, which include recertifying senior staff in National Incident Management System training and re-evaluating each school’s safety checklist.
“More one-on-one, face-to-face communication tends to give parents better information than something you’d just read on the web,” said Hough. “There’s only so much you can learn when you’re on general social media, and it may not always be the best source. I think the additional knowledge gives them a little bit more peace.”
But for schools to be truly safe, he stressed, communication must run both ways. “See something, hear something, say something: That’s the one message we’re really trying to get out,” said Hough. “We can harden schools all we want with fences and guard gates and door buzzers, but the best prevention is parents and students and employees.”
In that vein, he continued, he’s seen increased student involvement in efforts to promote safe schools since the Parkland shooting. In addition to the nationwide March 14 walkout to protest gun violence and the March 24 March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., students have been more inclined to share their smaller-picture concerns and thoughts with school administrators.
“If any silver lining has come out of this, it’s that the students aren’t holding back,” said Hough. “There’s a general feeling that they’ve had enough. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the response this strong before.”
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the print version of this story attributed the second quote by Lindsey Altsheler to another person. The online version has been corrected.