Tribune special report

How safe are our schools?: A look at school security in SLO County after Sandy Hook

In the wake of the Connecticut attack, that topic is the subject of much discussion throughout the county as districts evaluate their campuses and consider changes

clambert@thetribunenews.com acornejo@thetribunenews.comJanuary 19, 2013 

Dozens of Grover Beach Elementary School students, some tailed by their backpack-toting parents, streamed onto campus shortly before the bell rang Thursday morning.

Maria Sousa walked her two daughters through the front gate and out to the playground at the rear of the campus. Other parents led their children to class through several different gates dotted around campus.

Sousa likes being able to accompany the girls onto the school grounds in the morning, no questions asked. It makes her feel comfortable to know they’ve arrived safely.

But she’s also concerned that the campus might be too open; she believes parents should have access to the campus but in a more controlled way.

“All the gates should be closed, and everyone should have to come through the front gate,” Sousa said. “Just for safety, because we never know.”

Sousa is not alone in her concerns; the school will hold a meeting Wednesday for parents to discuss access issues.

Such questions have taken on new urgency as schools throughout San Luis Obispo County
grapple with similar safety-related worries and review emergency procedures in light of the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Since that shooting, in which 20 children and six adults were killed at the school, San Luis Obispo

County educators have tried to reassure worried parents, organized meetings and started to review their emergency-preparedness plans to see what revisions could be made to increase safety.

Though there’s no way to guarantee a tragedy like Newtown won’t occur, school districts can take steps to ensure their response is as efficient as possible. 

Some advocate for more obvious signs of security: secured fences, armed guards, locked doors.

Others say that the best deterrent is forming an intimate relationship among students, staff and the community.

Some of the changes being made include making sure classroom doors lock from the inside, making sure check-in procedures for visitors are enforced and requiring all staff to wear badges.

Along with the changes, though, some educators caution against changing the nature of the school environment and emphasize the need to maintain a balance between safety and a welcoming culture.

And even with additional security measures and numerous precautions, there’s no airtight means — short of literally fortifying a school — that would stop someone from getting on campus.

“San Luis Obispo County is not a county that wants to see huge fences, razor wire and metal detectors at schools,” said Dan Andrus, principal at Morro Bay High School. “It doesn’t fit our culture as a community.”

Preparing for emergencies

Shortly after the Newtown shooting, superintendents of the county’s 10 public school districts started pulling together staff to talk about what steps they should take.

All are taking a fresh look at their safety plans, which districts are required to have and review annually. The plans include a range of emergency scenarios — from a fire to an earthquake to an emergency at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Most schools added an active shooter scenario to the planning after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, Andrus said. In that scenario most schools shelter students where they are, keep them as safe as possible and assess what is happening.

After the winter break, many superintendents asked their principals to practice lockdown drills.

“Each time, with each drill, we learn something,” Atascadero Unified Superintendent Deborah Bowers said. “You can’t anticipate every potential situation, but we want to be as prepared as we can be so we can respond effectively and almost instinctively.”

School administrators are checking intercoms, alarms and other safety equipment to make sure everything works properly. Some said they’d like to install new locks so classroom doors lock from the inside.

In the meantime, some superintendents have asked teachers to keep their classroom doors locked during the day.

Coast Unified Superintendent Chris Adams said the North Coast district has already modified its door locks. He’s concerned that many classrooms have only one entrance, and he wants to install a second door on the opposite side of the classroom.

San Miguel Joint Union Superintendent Curt Dubost is interested in installing a buzzer system at school entrances, “even though tragically back in Connecticut they had those on entryways and it didn’t stop the intruder.”

Lucia Mar Superintendent Jim Hogeboom has asked all staff members of the South County district to wear name badges at all times. Several administrators said they’ve reminded teachers and staff to make sure all visitors check in before walking around campus — even if it’s just a parent delivering a forgotten lunch to a child.

Other measures that have been discussed in recent weeks, such as installing bulletproof glass or posting an armed officer at every single school campus, are often cost-
prohibitive. Josh Blair, whose 4-year-old daughter attends Grover Beach Elementary, asked at a parent meeting whether a police officer could be stationed on campus.

“I don’t necessarily think teachers should be armed, but an additional police presence would help deter crime,” he said.

In a later interview, Blair suggested that retired officers or military personnel could be tapped to help patrol. Or perhaps teachers could have the ability to carry a concealed weapon, he added, as long as they’ve been trained and vetted by a police chief or the sheriff.

Another parent at the Grover Beach meeting, Carolina Shaddox, suggested instead that teachers take self-defense courses and teach children to be more aware of their surroundings.

“There’s no way that one armed guard is going to cover that whole school appropriately,” Shaddox added in a phone interview later.

Adding an officer to every school in the county would cost millions of dollars a year.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson’s office pays for seven armed deputies to work as school resource deputies at multiple schools in unincorporated areas. To post a deputy at each of the 42 schools covered by the Sheriff’s Office would cost about $5 million a year, he estimated.

The deputies don’t merely patrol a campus. They investigate crimes on school grounds, help identify at-risk students, establish a rapport with students and serve as role models.

Parkinson said he’s “not overly interested in the idea of arming teachers,” and several school district administrators, including county school Superintendent Julian Crocker, agree that “putting more guns in the hands of adults on campus is not the way to go.”

Parkinson added: “Some are talking about fortifying the schools, but if there’s a will, there’s a way to get into a school. Do you want to create a school that’s like a prison? The reality is, it’s expensive, and it’s not going to guarantee safety.”

San Luis Coastal Unified District officials quickly acknowledge that schools without security fences are more vulnerable to unwanted intruders. However, turning schools into strongholds that bar community access has never been a popular concept.

“The school board made a conscious decision not to have schools like that,” said Assistant Superintendent Rick Robinett. “The schools we have are purposely integrated into communities, not fortresses that create barriers.”

The district pays to have armed resource officers at each of its high schools who are available to respond to emergency situations.

But it is not guns that will keep students safe, said Superintendent Eric Prater.

“Rather, maintaining high levels of awareness within a network of closely connected staff, student, parent  and community relationships is the key to safe schools,” Prater said.  “Obviously, emergency plans and drills need to be in place and regularly practiced — but it’s the ability to create dozens of watchful eyes and ears that can serve as the best proactive deterrent.”

Preventing, not reacting

Crocker, who recently met with all the county’s superintendents, said they agreed the most effective steps they could take are preventive, rather than reactive.

Those steps include building trust with students, making sure schools have aggressive anti-
bullying programs, identifying pupils who are exhibiting anti-social behavior early, and trying to provide counseling and mental health assistance.

The San Luis Coastal district, for example, has passed new, updated policies on bullying following new anti-bullying legislation passed in California.

“Research indicates that most effective anti-bullying programs are not about
anti-bullying but about creating a positive culture. It has more to do with positive character building,” said Morro Bay High School Principal Andrus.

Communication between parents and schools, he added, is critical. It ensures that students with special needs are properly cared for, and allows staff to identify triggers and know how to react when things aren’t going right.

Jim Brescia, superintendent of the Cayucos Elementary district, said he’ll raise awareness among his staff to identify students and families who might need counseling, referrals to services, or other help.

Jason Taylor, the safety officer for Paso Robles Unified School District, said that having a tight-knit community, including parents, students and local law enforcement, is essential.

“No one wants this to happen in their school,” Taylor said. “It is about preplanning, practicing and having a plan and making sure that plan works.”

A day after a student was wounded in a shooting at Taft Union High School on Jan. 10, Nipomo High School Principal Michelle Johnson talked to each grade level separately about safety — not to worry students, but to get the issue on their radar.

Johnson also hopes to empower students to help keep their school safe and tell an adult if they see something unusual.

“Kids know what’s going on around campus,” she said. “We made it clear to them that they play a critical role.”

SCHOOL SAFETY EVENTS COMING UP

Several upcoming events around the county will focus on various issues, including bullying and school safety.

On Tuesday, a free screening of a documentary, “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History,” will be shown at 7 p.m. at Chumash Auditorium in Cal Poly’s University Union in San Luis Obispo.

On Jan. 28, the Lucia Mar Unified School District will hold an informational forum on safety and emergency preparedness at 5:30 p.m. at 602 Orchard St. in Arroyo Grande.

On Jan. 31, a free presentation, “Understanding our Kids’ Offline and Online Social World: Friendships, Cliques & Power Plays,” featuring author Trudy Ludwig will be held at 6:30 p.m. atLaguna Middle School, 11050 Los Osos Valley Road in San Luis Obispo. The event will be hosted by the San Luis Obispo Asset Development Network and will include information about cyberbullying and sexting, and offer tips and resources to help empower children in their social world.

On Feb. 1, the Asset Development Network presents a conference, “It Starts with Me: Building a Community Without Bullying,” at Cuesta College from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Separate breakouts will be held for adults and youths. The cost is $50 for adults and $25 for youths. The registration deadline is Friday; for more information, contact Dianna Mills at 782-7263 or dmills@slocoe.org, or go to www.slocoe.org.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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