NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Students in many Hampton Roads school divisions returned to the classroom Monday, as they mark a new academic year. That includes Newport News, where communities are eager to move forward from a high-profile shooting at Richneck Elementary.
Newport News students already got a feel for metal detectors or weapons detection systems in the back half of last school year. This time around, clear backpacks and more security officers are in play.
"We're ready to put our best foot forward," said Michele Nordeen, parent of a Menchville High School freshman.
"It was different, because my daughter had to go to Menchville. So, we had to learn a new traffic pattern there," she added.
The introduction of clear backpacks was also new for Nordeen's family. Administrators previously stated they would provide the special bookbags to all their students, preschool through 12th grade.
“I think it gives parents and teachers a peace of mind. We have more security officers to handle any incidents. With the clear backpacks and the metal detectors, less controversial items will make it in the schools is what we’re hoping," Nordeen added.
In a presentation given ahead of the new school year, administrators said they hired three new supervisor security officers and 45 new security officers, bumping the total to 115.
There is also a new superintendent at the helm. School board members tapped Dr. Michele Mitchell to fill the role on a permanent basis.
"My biggest message to the families is we are here to partner with you," Mitchell told 13News Now on Monday morning.
Mitchell took over after the firing of Dr. George Parker III, who received public scrutiny for three shootings on school grounds in the span of 18 months.
That includes the one at Richneck Elementary, when a 6-year-old boy admitted to shooting his first-grade teacher in January. The injured teacher, Abby Zwerner, is suing the school division for $40 million.
A wave of changes followed the Richneck incident, including leadership shakeups, the aforementioned security measures, and the formation of three advisory committees.
"We appreciate the input from the community and we were able to take that input and add to some of our safety measures, so again, going back to partnering with our families and partnering with the community," said Mitchell.
Moreover, Nordeen also leads the Newport News Council PTA. Like Mitchell, she expressed a desire to partner with families and the community.
Nordeen said she was looking forward to having Mitchell present at future council meetings, as well.
The new superintendent also took time to share her priorities: "[We're] focused on academics, we're focused on improving our communication with our parents, we're focused on safety and security, we're also focused on improving our culture and climate and we're looking forward to partnering with all of our parents to make it a wonderful year for our students."
Safety initiatives in Newport News include the addition of two new key positions; executive director of crisis planning, prevention and environmental risk management and director of school safety.