“The D.C. sniper attacks (also known as the Beltway sniper attacks) were a series of coordinated shootings that occurred during three weeks in October 2002 throughout the Washington metropolitan area, consisting of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Ten people were killed, and three others were critically wounded.” These words begin the article in Wikipedia about the sniper attacks which occurred twenty years ago in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Recent television shows have focused on the things that happened back then.
Although the attacks were in the District of Columbia area, the impact was felt here in the Shenandoah Valley. Because no one knew who the snipers were, and they appeared to be traveling around the area, local school divisions and law enforcement agencies in the Valley enhanced their security and were on the watch.
Some local area schools also hosted football games for schools from the Northern Virginia area. Since the sniper was striking without notice in outdoor areas, playing football on their home fields was not safe.
At the time of the sniper shootings in 2002, I was principal at the then Stonewall Jackson High School (SJHS, now Mountain View) in Quicksburg, Virginia. Two schools from the Northern Virginia area brought their football game to rural SJHS which was easily accessible from I-81 on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. School administrators from our school as well as the schools in Northern Virginia were there, as well as local law enforcement. We also knew that there would be undercover police and other agencies at the game, although we did not know who they were and where.
Dr. David Hinegardner, who was the assistant principal at SJHS in 2002 says “I just remember the game being a very solemn event. I believe it was a beautiful sunshiny Saturday afternoon with a beautiful blue sky. However, players and fans seemed very subdued. It was eerily quiet, certainly not your typical high school football game. Even though we were pretty sure we were safe where we live it was still a scary and sad time for everyone.”
I became principal in 1998, and at that time we did not have School Resource Officers (SROs). My previous assignment was assistant principal at Strasburg High School, and since it was in the Town of Strasburg, their police department had officers present at all football games. At Stonewall Jackson High School, which was in the county, the sheriff’s department usually sent deputies to the football games. However, I recall one Friday night when we had no sheriff’s department representatives and an off-duty New Market police officer who was there to watch the game came to my rescue when we had an issue.
In 2022, Shenandoah County Public Schools has SROs in every school, thanks to Sheriff Tim Carter. Stonewall Jackson’s first SRO was Maurice Painter, who had been an SRO at Chantilly High School, and knew the role of an SRO officer well. Originally two of the towns in Shenandoah County, Strasburg and Woodstock, had SROs for the schools within their town limits but now all the SROs are employees of the sheriff’s department. When I was School Board Chair, I introduced a resolution which passed unanimously recognizing SROs and asking the state of Virginia to continue grants for funding of SRO programs. As a side note, several of the SROs now are former students, as were others in the past, and I am very proud of them for all that they do.
Critical response training so that everyone would know their role when it came to school safety was conducted regularly when I was principal, and was invaluable. I knew that when we had a safety issue (such as a bomb threat, an intruder, or other issue), the principal was in charge until law enforcement arrived and then law enforcement was in charge. While I was principal for ten years, we had to use what we learned in the training several times for bomb threats and once for an intruder. Because we had done drills to practice, staff and students knew what to do. Today, my former assistant principal (and former student) Deborah Litten, who was great at coordinating practice drills for different scenarios at SJHS, works on coordination of school safety scenarios at the central office, so that all schools and administrators are on the same page.
The terror twenty years ago, and the memories of local schools helping Northern Virginia schools hold their football games while under threat, remind me of the importance of school and community safety and working together.