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Men’s restroom sign at Sequoia Plaza (staff photo)

A controversial decision by Arlington Public Schools to change staff bathrooms so they do not lock from the outside has incited backlash from a number of teachers.

APS is embarking on a “lock and key” project to maintain the safety and security of buildings and “improve the key inventory process” at its 42 school buildings, per an email sent from Washington-Liberty High School Principal Antonio Hall to staff, shared with ARLnow.

As part of that work, single-occupancy staff bathrooms would be changed to only lock from the inside, granting access to students and staff who previously could not use these facilities.

Bathrooms within classrooms and clinics would have no locking mechanism at all, and for these facilities, “it is encouraged that signage be created if desired,” per an FAQ document prepared for staff, also shared with ARLnow.

The changes will “ensure all staff including maintenance, bus drivers, etc. have access without access to a key. In addition, this conversion ensures that all students have access to a single use bathroom regardless of the reason,” the document said.

Staff were informed of these changes on Wednesday and told they would be happening over spring break, which starts after school lets out today (Friday), teachers say. APS was not able to return a request for comment before deadline.

Teachers, some of whom shared comments to ARLnow under the condition of anonymity, say they feel disrespected by administrators. They are also frustrated that administrators made the decision without consulting any of the three teacher committees, according to Josh Folb, a leader within the teachers union Arlington Education Association.

The teachers who spoke to ARLnow said a number of staff restrooms have already been converted into single-use restrooms accessible to all students, prompting concerns that this will give students another place to use drugs.

Here is what one high school teacher had to say:

It is dumbfounding that less than two months after the death of a student due to overdose and countless more incidents of drug usage and risk assessments, the school district [is] determined to apply an overwhelming mandate that increases student risk (not safety) without any input, thought of execution, within a minimal timeline, and what would be assumed as an astronomical cost. All of this on top of the fact that it would now wholly remove any location for teachers to access a private restroom consistently during the already limited time that we do have.

My imagination runs wild at this notion considering we find new Instagram accounts every year created by students where pictures of teachers are unknowingly taken and posted on social media. This move would allow students to do so with literally our pants down.

A Washington-Liberty High School teacher with 25 years of experience told the School Board in a letter, shared with ARLnow, that he was “surprised and dismayed” by the decision.

“The currently shared single-use restrooms are already busy, and teachers have limited time for access, mainly between classes,” he said. “This decision represents a major change in my working conditions and environment… As a professional, do I also have reasonable access to a single-use restroom without having to use a group restroom with high school boys?”

During a speech to the School Board last night, Folb said the safe and orderly operation of the schools depends on teachers having a private place to respond to nature’s call and students not having a lockable space to consume drugs.

“Have we learned nothing?” he asked.

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Arlington Education Association members wearing red in the May 26, 2022 School Board meeting, when a collective bargaining resolution was passed (courtesy of Virginia Education Association/Olivia Geho)

Local teachers union Arlington Education Association is vying to become the exclusive collective bargaining representative for public school staff.

Arlington Public Schools educators, led by AEA, will hold an election to certify AEA as the official union for teachers and support staff. Currently, the membership-based organization advocates for employees but cannot guarantee benefits through legally binding contracts.

The forthcoming election would reinstate collective bargaining after more than 40 years without it, according to a press release from the AEA sent yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon.

“The time has come,” said AEA president June Prakash in a statement. “No more decisions about us, without us.”

The Arlington School Board unanimously approved collective bargaining last May, becoming the second school system in Virginia, behind Richmond, to do so. The Virginia General Assembly repealed a ban on unionizing in 2020.

The road since has been rocky. Last fall, some AEA members said they were taking more time to review language in the resolution and were stymied by a communication breakdown between staff and administrators. At the time, only school administrators had elected a bargaining unit.

The next step forward for AEA will be providing APS with its 20-day notice for a union election.

In a statement, AEA Collective Bargaining Committee Chair Juan Andres Otal said collective bargaining will make a positive difference for students and employees of APS.

“Collective bargaining is our opportunity to have a voice in improving our working conditions, compensation, and benefits. We can’t wait any longer for more planning time,” Otal said. “We can’t wait for a wage that keeps up with the cost of living.”

AEA said in its release that it is grateful to the educators and community leaders who “show up and fight for” school employees and students.

“While there is still much work to do before securing a contract, educators acknowledge and celebrate this achievement for the historic moment it is,” the union said.

The statement added:

We know we will ultimately prevail with your ongoing support, leadership, and commitment to what is right. Our schools must acknowledge that to recruit and retain the best, the division must offer better conditions to all employees. We will continue to press forward and ensure our schools remain strong for our community, our educators, and most importantly, our students.

AEA is itself recovering from recent controversies. Earlier this year, former president Ingrid Gant was arrested for embezzling approximately $400,000 in funds from the organization she led for six years, before she and her executive board were ousted. AEA’s national affiliate, the National Education Association, temporarily took the helm.

Prakash became president last year after working as a kindergarten teacher in APS for six years. Since then, she has advocated for better pay and working conditions for employees and more respect from the School Board.

Earlier this month, she called out APS for telling bus drivers to pick up trash. She has also advocated for more equality in raises in the proposed 2023-24 schools operating budget.

“Two things can be true: We can love our jobs and our students, but also, we can demand to be paid what we’re worth,” Prakash said at the March 2 School Board meeting.

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Panelists at the Arlington County Council of PTAs event on drug use on Monday, March 13, 2023 (via CCPTA)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) As more parents and caregivers grapple with substance use addiction among youth, they are increasingly turning to the juvenile justice system as a last resort.

Over the past year, there has been upwards of a 100% increase in the number of petitions being made for court-ordered services, such as drug treatment, according to Hon. W. Michael Chick, Jr., a judge with the Arlington County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

He noted “a dramatic increase” in Child in Need of Services or Supervision petitions, “CHINs” for short, filed by parents. These days, most are related to fentanyl.

“They are coming to the court to say, ‘We’re desperate, please save my child,'” he said in a video message to parents shared during a panel discussion on drugs last night (Monday) hosted by three high school Parent-Teacher Associations and the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

“They are children with severe substance addictions and they’re desperate,” said Chick.

“To have kids come in front of you, asking for a treatment program and you’re not able to provide it — to have a kid beg you to put them in detention to save them from themselves — it’s heartbreaking,” he continued, reinforcing reports that youth are effectively detoxing in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria.

There have been at least seven juvenile overdoses in Arlington County this year, including the death of 14-year-old student Sergio Flores after a fatal overdose at Wakefield High School. Following his death, teachers, parents and School Board members have called on Arlington Public Schools and all of county government to do more for children.

A slew of school– and community-sponsored panels have brought together first responders, counselors and addiction specialists and prosecutors to educate parents. The most recent was held last night at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, featuring a live panel discussion as well as pre-recorded messages, drawing some 200 virtual and in-person attendees.

An emerging theme at these meetings is the role of parents. The panel was as an outlet for a handful who shared first-hand observations as well as obstacles they face obtaining resources for their kids and getting through to them, with some panelists suggesting different ways parents can step up.

Some attendees from the Arlington County Council of PTAs event on drug use on Monday, March 13, 2023 (staff photo)

One mother shared how her daughter recently attempted suicide twice, part of a mini-rash of student deaths and attempted suicides this school year, and how long it took to schedule meetings with the right school officials to obtain accommodations to keep up with her schooling.

Michelle Best, who co-facilitates a parent support group through the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, empathized with how hard it can be for parents to receive services from the public schools in these situations.

“There’s a lot of information that could be better given to parents, out there in a better way,” she said.

A few panelists put the onus on parents, including Deputy Chief Wayne Vincent, the leader of the ACPD Community Engagement Division, who encouraged parents to tip the police to known drug dealers.

“I can’t tell you how many times, when I’m in our community, I hear, ‘Wayne, how do you not know who’s dealing? Everybody knows,'” he said. “Here’s a flash. No, not everybody knows. The police don’t know. There are so many ways you can help identifying who they are.”

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A screenshot of the current APS website (via APS)

Arlington Public Schools is giving its website a facelift.

A redesigned website is set to go live on July 1. It culminates more than a year of work to revamp a website last redesigned seven years ago, which is well beyond the industry standard of 3-5 years, says Assistant Superintendent of School & Community Relations Catherine Ashby.

“The redesign aims primarily to address a common complaint about the current website, that it is difficult to find information because there is so much available,” she said. “The new design also shifts to a more graphics-oriented, intuitive layout which should make navigation easier for all audiences.”

The navigation scheme, she continued will be “centered on student and family needs, to make it easier to find the most-requested information like registration processes, school boundary zones, and student health and wellness information.”

Indeed, last month, an ARLnow reader reached out to highlight difficulty she experienced when trying to find information about the elementary school options.

“It just seems a little strange that out of the five option schools, three have broken links for their school profiles, and the other two link to press releases, not profiles,” the reader wrote. “One of the press releases is a story about a reading carnival held at the school. It is oddly difficult to get information about the schools.”

Since then, some of the pages have been updated. Another problem she identified — a broken link on a webpage about requesting a transfer — remains.

Ashby says work began with an internal committee of school-based and central office staff, who reviewed feedback and website use statistics and reviewed current best practices and trends in K-12 education websites. Last summer, an outside consultant reviewed the school system’s plans and tested out navigating the website.

This month, Ashby says, the visual design has been completed and the technical development is well underway. APS will invite staff, parents, students and community members to form a robust testing panel to try out the website in mid-April.

There will be various page layout options to make it easier for staff editors to present information that gets uploaded to the website clearly and accessibly. It will continue to feature instantaneous translation, compliance with web content accessibility standards, interactive calendars and quick access to common tools.

After the APS website launches on July 1, the school system will start rolling out the new design to the sites for individual schools.

The division webmaster will work with each school web liaison to prepare their site for the new design and to communicate with school staff and families, Ashby said. All 39 school sites should get upgraded to the new design by the end of the 2023-24 school year.

Progress on the information architecture, visual design and technical development has been reported to the Superintendent’s Cabinet and to the School Board, most recently in January of this year.

“I’m very excited about the website redesign this has been a long time coming,” Ashby said during that School Board meeting. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time.”

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People on smartphones (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Should Arlington Public Schools keep students from using their phones in schools?

The School Health Advisory Board — a committee of parents, some of whom are nurses and doctors, and a few administrators — has recommended APS adopt a policy for the next school year requiring smartphones to be off and put away during school hours.

This group has been advocating for a system-wide phone policy since 2019 but today, principals and teachers are following this policy on a school-by-school and classroom-by-classroom basis. Kenmore, Dorothy Hamm and Swanson and middle schools have these phone policies in place, says APS spokesman Frank Bellavia.

There, students are not allowed to have their cell phones out in school unless for very specific instructional purposes, he says. Phones are not allowed during passing time or in the cafeteria, too.

This ad-hoc approach “makes it difficult to enforce for both teachers and principles,” committee chair Desiree Jarowski told the School Board during a work session this January, advocating for a system-wide policy.

“It creates more problems for the students because there is no consistency in policy, and no consequences if they don’t follow the rules — particularly if the teacher is the one requesting the student puts the cell phone or other device away,” she asserted.

Jarowski described instances of students cheating with their cell phones and refusing to put away their phones when teachers asked. She said that SHAB has heard from “many parents” concerned about cell phones use in schools, while an informal survey of parents on the Arlington Education Matters Facebook page showed some 88% of respondents would want “away for the day” policies at all secondary schools.

A parent of a Swanson Middle School student tells ARLnow that despite the policy, his son has observed kids use their phones in the hallways and during class to play music, watch videos, play games and look at dating apps.

SHAB is urging APS to adopt a draft policy it created in 2019. Doing so, Bellavia says, would have to follow the usual APS process for policy development, including drafts being written and shared with stakeholder groups and made available for public comment.

If APS agreed to draft such a policy, it would follow the lead of Fairfax County Public Schools. Last summer, it updated the student conduct guidelines to say phones have to be silenced and put away for the duration of the school day for elementary and middle schoolers and during instructional periods for high schoolers, “to help foster a learning environment that is conducive to learning.”

This change came after Herndon High School cracked down on record-high phone use last spring with some positive results.

Current APS policies stipulate when and how kids can use their phones and ways schools can teach them proper phone use.

“APS is committed to assisting students and staff members in creating a 21st century learning environment,” the APS student handbook says. “To support this progress, with classroom teacher approval, students may use their personal devices smartphones, laptops, netbooks, tablets, etc.) to access the Internet and collaborate with other students during the school day.”

It has an acceptable use policy that stipulates, among other things, a digital citizenship curriculum “educating students about appropriate online behavior, including interacting with students and other individuals on social network sites, public websites, blogs, and other electronic communication tools.”

Reactions among School Board members to the idea of a system-wide policy were mixed.

School Board Vice-Chair Cristina Diaz-Torres strongly opposed it. She said the draft policy is concerning and based on research with disputable sample sizes, while enforcement would eat into instructional time.

“What I would strongly consider that we do is really double down on our efforts to encourage our students to use these devices responsibly,” she said.

“There’s no version of the world where cellphones are ever going to go away,” she continued. “In the same way we’re teaching our students to self-regulate emotionally, as one board member, I would strongly encourage instead that we be leaning into ways to teach our students to self-regulate, to self-moderate, to really understand the utility of the tool, and use it in appropriate moments.”

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Counterfeit OxyContin with fentanyl, also known as ‘blues’ (via Drug Enforcement Agency/Flickr)

Drug use intervention programs for youth are in short supply in Arlington County, according to people who help youth with substance dependencies.

The need is particularly acute for younger teens, as the onset of exposure to and abuse of drugs is trending younger, National Capital Treatment and Recovery Clinical Director Pattie Schneeman said in a recent panel.

“‘There’s nothing out there for adolescents.’ I hear it all the time,” says Schneeman, acknowledging that National Capital Treatment and Recovery, formerly Phoenix House, stopped serving children in 2015 because insurance reimbursements did not cover operating costs.

“If you have money, you can send someone to a posh program. You can pay for services,” she continued. “But if you are average, middle-class or a low socioeconomic family, you have no resources, and it is very sad and devastating to our communities.”

Arlington is seeing a rise in youth obtaining and using opioids, with an increasing number overdosing both on and off school grounds — or effectively detoxing in the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in Alexandria. In some cases, they are prescription, but in many others, they are buying illegally manufactured pills laced with the deadly drug fentanyl, from local gangs or through social media, police say.

The death of 14-year-old student Sergio Flores after a fatal overdose at Wakefield High School has driven teachers, parents and School Board members to call for more action and support from APS and Arlington County. Conversations since then have revealed the barriers throughout the continuum of care to actually treating kids.

For instance, school-based substance abuse counselors can only educate — they cannot provide treatment, according to School Climate Coordinator Chip Bonar, while appropriate treatment options can have a months-long waitlist. The division of the Arlington County Dept. of Human Services that works with children and behavioral health has 43% of its job positions unfilled and acknowledges there are few residential substance use treatment options.

It will be at least two years before VHC Health — formerly Virginia Hospital Center — opens its planned rehab facility. Two years is a long time, however, considering that less than a month passed between the death of Flores and a near-fatal teen overdose Wednesday.

To beef up treatment options, and expand services in the nearer term, Arlington is turning to settlements with manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies it alleges have been key players in the opioid epidemic. Just last week, the Arlington County Board agreed to participate in a proposed settlement against Teva, Allergan, Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and their related corporate entities.

The Board voted to approve the settlement in an unannounced vote at the end of a lengthy meeting.

“This is the latest in a series of settlements that are part of the larger National Opioid Settlement,” said county spokesman Ryan Hudson. “The total funding awarded to the County from these agreements continues to evolve as more settlements are finalized. All opioid settlement funding will be used on approved opioid abatement purposes.”

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School Board member David Priddy holds a copy of the proposed 2023-24 budget for Arlington Public Schools (via APS)

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán has proposed an $803.3 million budget — an increase of more than 7% over the current budget.

And the messaging around the budget picks up on some themes, including the mental and physical health of students and more support for teachers, which arose from major events this school year, including a series of student deaths and drug overdoses.

“This budget reflects our commitment to supporting continued success for every APS student through investments in both academic and mental health support,” Durán said in a statement.

“We are also continuing our focus on compensation for our teachers and staff to ensure we remain a highly competitive employer at a vital time for public schools, while further strengthening division-wide safety and security measures,” he added.

Durán writes that the budget process for the 2023-2024 school year began with “a large deficit” after APS used some $41 million — partially from reserves — last year to avoid significant reductions.

“This deficit was also driven by the need to provide staff with a step increase as well as a cost of living adjustment next year in order to partially mitigate rising inflation,” he said.

Like last year, APS is once more drawing from its well of reserves, spending $41.2 million in addition to the county transfer of $607.6 million. This transfer, $23 million larger than last year, comprises three-quarters of the school system’s revenue.

Both enrollment and cost-per-pupil are on the rise, per the budget. Next year, APS projects enrollment to increase by 710 students, according to a six-page budget explainer, while per-pupil expenditures to reach $24,560.

APS enrollment projections compared to cost-per-pupil (via APS)

It also projects a rising number of students receiving special education services and learning English.

Population projections for students with disabilities and English language learners (via APS)

When it comes to school staff, the budget includes $25.6 million for step increases for eligible employees and a 3% cost of living adjustment for all employees. The average pay increase will be a little over 5% for teachers, administrators and professionals and more than 6% for support staff.

“Anything less than a step plus 6% doesn’t beat the current cost of inflation,” said June Prakash, the president of the Arlington Education Association, the local teachers union, in a statement. “How can you expect us to give 100% of ourselves to APS when many employees must have second (or even third) jobs to make ends meet? Our staff will continue to struggle with housing, food, and furthering the education of their own children.”

She said employees are still paid less than colleagues in surrounding districts.

Teacher salaries in Arlington and neighboring Virginia jurisdictions, per Virginia Education Association data (created by ARLnow)

In response to staffing shortages, Durán proposes $2 million for a Summer School bonus for teachers and assistants and increased substitute teacher pay rates and substitute coverage pay for teachers. APS has taken this approach before.

The substitute teacher shortage is not new nor unique to Arlington. About 77% of school systems nationwide report substitute shortages, as teachers retire or quit in higher numbers, a trend some media outlets and research have linked to the pandemic.

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(Updated at 5:45 p.m.) Three Arlington School Board candidates are officially vying for the endorsement of the local Democratic party.

The candidates are Erin Freas-Smith, Miranda Turner and Angelo Cocchiaro, the Arlington County Democratic Committee announced today (Friday). They are running in a party caucus to determine who will advance to the general election and represent the party, though party affiliation is not shown on the ballot for School Board races.

Their filing deadline was earlier this week.

Freas-Smith and Turner, who has run for this office before, are mothers to school-aged children in Arlington Public Schools and are active in Parent-Teacher Associations. Cocchiaro is active in local and state politics.

Cherrydale resident Freas-Smith is a mother of three children, who attend Key Elementary School and Dorothy Hamm Middle School. She has spent many years working in the PTAs, serving as the Escuela Key PTA president during the pandemic and currently as a substitute teacher.

“As a substitute teacher and volunteer within APS schools I have seen first hand the crisis of this moment,” she says on her website, listing her policy positions and campaign promises.

“Students are acting out, falling behind educationally, and teachers/in-school staff are at their breaking point,” she continues. “We must commit to our students by supporting teachers, providing avenues for advancement, and listening to the needs of families.”

An acquisitions librarian for the Library of Congress, and thus a federal employee in the legislative branch, she says she can pursue public office as a Democrat without violating the Hatch Act. This conflict led former candidate Symone Walker to drop out and run as an independent.

Since her first bid for School Board, Turner has been focused on reversing learning loss she says stems from virtual instruction during Covid. Other top priorities include improving communication between the School Board and the community as well as mental health for students and teachers.

“We have students in our schools now who need more from APS. High expectations and equitable support are a must,” she said. “Mental health and safety in schools for our students and teachers is an urgent priority. We need a community-wide response with better coordination with the county.”

Turner is a lawyer who lives in Green Valley with her husband and three kids. She was a founding member of the Drew PTA and is involved with the Montessori Public School of Arlington PTA as well as the Early Childhood Education Committee for the Advisory Council on Teaching & Learning.

Cocchiaro describes himself as a Gen Z “former student organizer and free school lunch kid,” as well as a youth advocate. His résumé includes working for U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and was a convention delegate for the 2020 Democratic National Convention to elect President Joe Biden.

He tells ARLnow he plans to announce next Wednesday, March 1, the day of the next Arlington Dems meeting at the Lubber Run Community Center (300 N. Park Drive).

“As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, our students and our schools are at the epicenter of multiple swirling crises,” he said in a statement to ARLnow. “We need a plan. The place is here and the time is now for a generational change in perspective in school policymaking. I’ve spent the last six years as a student organizer, mobilizing peers on issues affecting us and fighting for progressive education values. I am prepared to advocate in just the same spirit for students now, to meet this moment and deliver the change that’s overdue.”

The three candidates will have opportunities to debate each other over the coming months, before the endorsement caucus, comprised of three days of voting in early May.

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Parents and community members march in front of Wakefield High School (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

After a fatal overdose on school grounds last month, Arlington Public Schools has been urging staff to call 911 for potential overdoses.

For incidents that might not be life-or-death, however, staff members are still being instructed to tell administrators when students show signs of being high or drunk, sending them to the school nurse for evaluation.

But multiple school sources tell ARLnow that, in their experience, they’ve already been reporting possibly impaired kids to administration and getting them evaluated by nurses, and neither step made inroads for students who are repeatedly coming to school high.

They added that they don’t feel heard by administrators. Students who are evaluated are either sent home or — in at least one case — returned to class while obviously high, per a video inside a classroom that ARLnow reviewed.

The instructions to staff were not enough to address their long-standing concerns about a group of teens at Wakefield that included Sergio Flores, the student who died last month, according to some teachers and local teachers union president June Prakash.

Before Flores was found unconscious in a bathroom at the school last month, staff had intervened when they discovered him and other students doing drugs — and had told administrators they were doing drugs and skipping class, according to a teacher with knowledge of the situation and documentation shared with ARLnow.

Despite following protocol, the teachers say the behavior continued.

“It’s going to happen again and again if this is all Arlington Public Schools is going to do,” the teacher told ARLnow, on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. “I don’t want to see this story or our students buried again.”

“As educators, we are in loco parentis” — acting in the place of the parent, in Latin — “but where does that begin and end?” Prakash asked.

It’s a question rattling teachers, says parent Judith Davis.

“Teachers are not okay, at all,” she tells ARLnow.

One Wakefield teacher is now even taking it upon herself to raise money to support families who cannot afford residential drug treatment for their children, which can cost some $60,000 for 90 days. Nearly $2,400 has been raised so far.

“I believe some students’ only chance to recover from opioid addiction is to remove them from the school environment and place them in a residential program,” the teacher wrote in the GoFundMe description. “Help me raise funds so that a student’s ability to pay is never an issue when finding a placement.”

Opioid use appears to be on the rise among youth and in Arlington Public Schools, and this issue is more widespread than just Wakefield.

In 2019, there were no recorded opioid overdoses involving juveniles in Arlington. Last year, that number jumped to eight, none of which were fatal. This year alone, there have been four, three of which occurred at school, and one of which was fatal, per remarks Tuesday by County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

Sources say the writing has been on the wall for months and perhaps since the end of widespread virtual instruction during the pandemic. They said teachers do not feel heard by administrators when they report their concerns or refer students for evaluations. Such concerns extend to lower grades, including at local elementary and middle schools.

“This does seem like a no-win situation in a lot of ways,” Prakash said. “On the one hand, you report something, and it seems to go unnoticed, or it looks like nothing is happening.”

“On the other hand,” she continued, “you have untrained staff trying to make these assessments — and what if they are wrong — what are the consequences for thinking a kid might be under the influence and then having them sent home?”

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Police and firefighters on scene of a reported overdose at Wakefield High School (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The following report was funded, in part, by the ARLnow Press Club. Become a member today and support in-depth local journalism.

From 2019 until 2022, there were no reported juvenile overdoses on Arlington Public Schools grounds. In the first six weeks of 2023, there have been three, including one that was fatal.

Meanwhile, drug possession and distribution cases remain lower than they were before school buildings closed during the pandemic, but appear to be on the rise.

The Arlington County Police Department, which provided the data in response to a FOIA request by ARLnow, says factors that could have impacted the number of reported cases possession and distribution cases include Covid-related school closures and legislative changes.

State statute was modified so that school principals were only required to report to law enforcement possible felony drug possession cases, such as possession of oxycodone or Adderall without a prescription.

Narcotics cases involving juveniles at Arlington Public Schools properties from 2019-2023 (courtesy of ACPD)

The data seems to suggest drug use on school grounds is rising, as is the possession of substances that carry felony charges. These emerging trends were thrown into relief last week when a student was found unconscious at Wakefield High School, and later died at the hospital of an apparent drug overdose. Four other students that day were evaluated and dispatches for possible overdoses continued into the next week.

While parents have been concerned about opioids since kids returned to school following the pandemic closures, the events of last week prompted a parent march and a School Board work session on opioids. During the School Board meeting — complete with a demonstration of the overdose reversal drug naloxone — substance abuse counselor Jenny Sexton said her team is most concerned about young people crushing up and smoking illicitly manufactured opioids.

These pills are cheap and can be purchased on social media. Some contain fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more potent than morphine and can only be detected once the pill is taken or if the user has a fentanyl test strip.

School Board members asked administrators what additional steps they are taking to improve school security and increase drug use prevention efforts and substance use recovery support. They also assured those watching they are taking this issue seriously.

“I hope that you hear that we are moving on this, that we feel the sense of urgency and that everyone around this table, and that everyone who is at APS, we see the issue, we feel the fear along with you,” School Board Vice-Chair Cristina Diaz-Torres said, addressing the parents tuning in.

“We understand that that is not acceptable and that there should not be a version of the world where you have to live in fear of your child going to school,” she continued. “We are moving quickly on a lot preventative measures with immediate triage efforts to ensure that our students have what they need in the immediate future.”

(The work session recorded more than 750 listeners — far and away more than any other recent work session and on par with many regularly-scheduled School Board meetings.)

School Board Chair Reid Goldstein stressed that combating drug use will require a community-wide response consisting of efforts at home and school and from the public.

“As a community, we must stay vigilant and well-informed and work together,” he said. “We have urged [the superintendent] to pursue every avenue to address safety and security issues at the schools by providing proposals to the board for funding consideration. It is through the collaborative actions of staff, parents, the community and students that APS will holistically address the needs of students, families and staff.”

In a statement to ARLnow, Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said the County Board agrees with the need for a community-wide response and interventions at home, school and in the county’s neighborhoods.

“We are currently coordinating with our colleagues to see what additional resources and increased support Arlington County can provide to reduce addiction in our community, with a particular focus on youth and a goal that no other family has to experience the tragedy of losing a child to the consequences of substance use,” he said.

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A line of school buses in the rain (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Arlington Public Schools is changing the way it verifies that students live within the county and will unenroll students who live outside its boundaries.

The new Home Address Confirmation Process is aimed at updating, improving and systematizing how APS keeps track of where students live. Individual schools used to conduct home checks and review proofs of residency, such as leases, as necessary when there were concerns about a family’s living situation.

Covid, however, showed APS that this created gaps in its record-keeping.

“During the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our families changed residences or were displaced entirely, and APS found that some of our information was out of date,” says APS spokesman Andrew Robinson. “This limited APS’ ability to accurately communicate with families.”

The new process involves confirming addresses for students in fifth and eighth grade, who will be promoted to the key transition years of sixth and ninth grades. Those whose addresses cannot be confirmed or who no longer live in Arlington will be withdrawn by mid-May for the upcoming 2023-24 school year, per a letter to families last week.

“We felt there was a need to standardize the process and ensure that it provided us with an opportunity to work with more of our families if their living situation was more complex,” Robinson tells ARLnow. “Moreover, we wanted to ensure that we were able to provide resources to our families that were now experiencing housing instability.”

Ultimately, he says, this provides a “fair and consistent process” for ensuring students live in Arlington and that APS has accurate information.

In the letter, the school system pledged to provide resources to assist families in enrolling in the correct school system. Families of students who are withdrawn, but later establish residency in Arlington, may re-enroll in APS.

This process will also help staff better identify students in complex living situations, such as students experiencing homelessness, and work with families to provide assistance and connect them with county and community services. The number of students experiencing homelessness during the 2022-23 school year is the same as during the 2018-19 school year, per data provided by APS. That number dropped during the early years of the pandemic, when an eviction moratorium was in place.

Students experiencing homelessness in APS (courtesy of APS)

APS, like all public school systems, is federally required to count students living in a motel or hotel, moving frequently or living “doubled up” with relatives and friends as experiencing homelessness. This definition, enshrined in the McKinney-Vento Act, is more expansive than the one used by the county and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.

Recent reporting in Georgia describes how this gap means schools are supporting children who don’t qualify for federal assistance because they have a roof over their heads — even if that roof belongs to a hotel or motel or is shared with a second family.

In these situations, APS staff members will visit families at home to learn more about their specific needs and how the school system can assist.

“APS can work to ensure they can stay in their home school, even if their temporary address changes,” Robinson said. “Children and youth experiencing homelessness also have a right to immediate enrollment in APS when residing in Arlington.”

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