“The same risks that apply to any organization apply to a school system as well,” says John Clark, Director of Safety and Security for Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS). “The difference is we’re dealing with kids. So, we must make our training age appropriate. We have to understand the audience at all times, but we still want the same outcome at the end of the day, which is a safe and secure environment.”
Loudoun County Public Schools, located in Ashburn, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., is the third-largest school system in Virginia. This school year, it will educate more than 84,000 students in 95 schools.
Clark began his career as a teacher’s assistant, but after starting grad school, he joined the Fairfax County, Va. Police Department. After a few years, he joined the U.S. Secret Service as a special agent, where he served for 23 years. After serving in a variety of roles, he finished his career helping lead the National Threat Assessment Center and their efforts in creating a threat assessment model for schools and organizations. He joined the LCPS in 2019.
At LCPS, he says he has a good foundation on which to continue to build the safety and security program. “Not only did I inherit an outstanding safety and security team, but we’ve had great support from the top leadership within LCPS. And we’ve got a tremendous relationship with our local law enforcement and public safety departments. Those have been the biggest support mechanisms in place so far.”
In March, when COVID-19 hit the Virginia and Washington, D.C. area in particular, LCPS was one of the first school districts in the U.S. to close its doors and begin remote learning for its students. That’s when continuity of operations and emergency response planning kicked in. “I don’t think that it was on any security director’s radar that schools would close for three months. We learned some valuable lessons in terms of planning, and going forward we will be more prepared to deliver remote learning and everything that goes along with it. As a result of this, we have ramped up our training efforts on contingency planning,” Clark says.
One initiative that Clark has implemented is to recognize children and staff that he says exemplify his team’s security mindset. He says, “Whether it’s someone reporting a security incident or mentoring a troubled student, I have made it a priority to publicly recognize them. It goes a long way, students and staff enjoy being recognized for outstanding work and parents appreciate the positive impact on their children.”
Another initiative that Clark implemented is the way that guests enter schools. In the past, a visitor would display an ID to a security camera at the front door of one of Loudoun’s 95 schools, announce the purpose of the visit and be buzzed into the school’s front office. With the new visitor protocol in place, all visitors remain outside of the building until their appointment or reason for visit is verified. These protocols dovetail into other initiatives such as the construction of secure vestibules at every LCPS school, which help prevent tailgaters from entering schools as well as the creation of a 24/7 LCPS Security Operations Center.
In addition, Clark worked with his partners in the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) to help launch the anonymous tip platform, Safe2Talk. This platform allows citizens to submit tips about concerning or suspicious behavior. The app’s interface allows users to specify which school a piece of information might concern and the type of activity or behavior to which the tip pertains. Users can also upload video or photo evidence. Reports are monitored 24/7 by the LCSO Emergency Communications Center. An LCSO deputy or Leesburg, Va. police officer can immediately be dispatched for any life-threatening tips. School resource officers and Clark’s staff also monitor all tips.
Clark has prioritized teamwork and training for all LCPS employees. He has partnered with internal and external stakeholders to provide threat assessment, Stop the Bleed, and legal training. He also coordinated a joint security training for all principals, assistant principals, SROs and LCPS school security officers. Over 250 personnel took part in this training event. He says, “It really helped to open everyone’s eyes and foster an appreciation for the fact that while we may have different perspectives, we are all committed to providing a safe and secure environment for our students.” In addition to prioritizing training, Clark has openly solicited feedback on his division’s performance and how to improve safety and security. “We did an end-of-year safety and security survey for all schools. We received extremely high marks and 145 comments on how to improve our operations. Any actionable items were immediately addressed and met with pleasant surprise.”
This year, Clark and his team of 100 personnel will continue to modernize and professionalize their district-wide efforts. During the first month of the school year, Clark’s team increased security training by 400% and helped enforce COVID-19 mitigation best practices.
In his free time, Clark loves spending time with his family, in addition to exercising.