NEW: FCPS is testing bathroom vape sensors, weapons screening and other safety measures

Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools is in the process of instituting new safety and security measures, including vape detection in bathrooms, expanded background checks, and a drone pilot program for the incident response team.

At last week’s school board meeting, FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid delivered a comprehensive update on several security and safety measures in advance of a “community conversation” on May 8 at South Lakes High School in Reston.

In addition to touching on previously reported steps, like employee background checks and a joint effort with the county to install speed cameras near schools, Reid shared that FCPS is in the midst of a pilot program placing vape detection tools in bathrooms at several schools.

“This will immediately detect use at our schools and we are monitoring its effectiveness right now,” she said. “We think it’s prudent to pilot it to see whether it delivers on its promise before we actually install it in all schools.”

However, Reid later said the installed vape sensors have provided “mixed results so far and I’m not sure that’s the answer.”

The idea for installing sensors of this nature was first broached in 2019, but the program was only first implemented recently.

Vaping is a major concern among parents and schools, not only due to tobacco and marijuana use but because of the potential for overdosing. There have been reported cases where the substances used in vaping cartridges are laced with fentanyl.

The vape detection sensors are currently being used in two high schools and one middle school, an FCPS spokesperson told FFXnow. They declined to specify the exact schools, citing a need to balance information sharing with concerns about compromising security.

Also in the pilot phase is a weapons screening system utilizing “software that would detect weapons coming onto campus” and front office panic alarms, Reid said.

FCPS didn’t share which or how many schools are included in the weapons screening and panic alarm systems pilots.

“It is too early to provide feedback on systems that are already being piloted or explored, such as vape detection…or weapons detection and panic alarm systems,” the spokesperson said.

Reid also mentioned briefly a drone pilot program for the school system’s incident response team.

“[The drones are] able to go to sites that may not be able to be secured right away so that we can get information back and forth to division security staff,” Reid said.

Information about costs or when this drone program could be used was not mentioned at the meeting or in FCPS’ response to FFXnow.

A “safety review audit” of all schools and FCPS buildings is also underway, where a third party reviews all procedures, processes, and infrastructure from a safety and security perspective. It’s expected the audit will be completed by the end of July, Reid said.

“We have engaged with an external third party to provide a holistic review of our safety and security protocols and procedures across our division,” the FCPS spokesperson said on the audit. “The assessment will look at all aspects of school safety and security, and ultimately make observations and recommendations for any required or suggested improvements or additions.”

All FCPS high schools have had exterior video cameras installed, Reid said, while camera installation at middle schools should be done by the end of the academic year. Cameras will ultimately be added at every single FCPS school.

“This is about a year and a half ahead of schedule,” Reid said.

About half of the elementary schools currently have cameras, she said. FCPS is in the midst of applying for a federal grant to add cameras at 10 more with the intention of having cameras at all elementary schools in the “near future.”

After the presentation, several school board members commented that illicit activity happening on school grounds after hours has been an ongoing concern. The installed cameras could help capture and act as a deterrent with that, both Reid and the board members noted.

She also confirmed that security vestibules are coming to schools that don’t have them yet FCPS has previously indicated that the secured sign-in areas will be installed this summer.

Last week, FCPS announced that it would now require expanded background checks for all employees in response to an ex-counselor’s conviction. That process has begun and will result in a re-issuing of new employee badges, Reid said.

“This has created quite a stir among our staff,” Reid said. “Some of our veteran staff prefer pictures that were taken a while ago.”