Coast Unified employees thinking about the unthinkable

An earlier version of this story said Butch Steeb is a member of SIPE, the School Insurance Program for Employees. He's actually a member of the school district's Site Security Council.

Cambria schools, students and teachers could be safer now, thanks to a daylong in-service day Monday, April 1, at which Coast Unified School District teachers, administrators, coaches, bus drivers and other staff members were taught how to prepare for, act and react during an attack or an “active shooter” incident.

It’s highly unlikely that there would ever be such an incident at a Cambria school campus, officials say.

But that’s also what people thought in Sandy Hook, Conn., before the massacre Dec. 14 in which a deranged young shooter killed 20 elementary school students and six adults.

Even before Sandy Hook, CUSD Superintendent Chris Adams and the district Board of Trustees already had been working to make the local campuses and students more secure. For instance, a group of security-expert volunteers from law enforcement, fire protection, Diablo Canyon security and other sources had formed a district Site Security Council.

Safety Council

Council members have reviewed Cambria’s school sites and made safety-based recommendations about everything from traffic patterns and fencing to requiring staffers to exhibit their ID at all times and making anyone coming onto a campus check in at the office — even a parent bringing a child’s forgotten lunch.

 “We’re extremely fortunate that these volunteers have come forward to help make our schools safer,” Adams told his board March 13. “There’s a lot of expertise on the table now … a tremendous level of skill, and virtually all of them are parents” of students in Coast schools.

Some council recommendations already have been taken. Peep-hole viewers have been installed in every door at the grammar school (work is underway on the other campuses), to meet the new mandate that all classroom doors remain closed and locked, to be opened only by the teacher or other adult.


Speakers took the 75 or so participants through what it’s like to be a first responder (because that’s likely what those on the affected campus would be in an active-shooter or attack scenario), what would be happening meanwhile at an Incident Command Center, and such handy hints as how to safely open a door (stand behind it) and how to use fire extinguishers as weapons.

Butch Steeb of Cambria, a member of the school district's Site Security Council, said extinguisher spray aimed at someone’s face can disable and disorient that attacker long enough so he or she can be disarmed and restrained.

The extinguisher’s container also can be used as a bludgeon, battering ram or missile-type weapon.

A different mind-set

The training curriculum also included the first-ever presentation by Project Guardian, a school-security program put together by law enforcers nationwide.

Local law-enforcement sergeant John Marrs, a member of Spartan Training Resources in Atascadero, is a Project Guardian participant.

“It’s all about changing people’s mind-set,” Marrs said, “about having them take responsibility for their own safety and the safety of those in their care.”

Participants learned to spot indicators of possible trouble ahead, including: Strange behavior by students, faculty members or others; people on campus who don’t belong there; someone in clothing that’s too bulky for the time of year (could conceal weapons); or strange packages left in odd places.

Marrs said, “It’s all about being more aware, of your environment, of what’s going on around you, of what the possibilities are … A lot of this is very new to educators. It’s not the way they typically think.”

But “staff has to plan for contingencies,” Marrs said. “They have to think, ‘If an active shooter came in now, where could I take the kids? How would we get to someplace safe?’”

It all takes advance planning, preparation and even doing rehearsals. For instance, tightly strapping a belt or zip-tie around a door-closer arm can make it much harder to enter the room. Being prepared means having those zip-ties in every room’s safety kit. And the district has held drills in the past, but is planning to do so far more often in the future.

Staffers also have to know when to flee, when to act and to not wait for law enforcement.

Marrs said. “Statistics show that, when there’s an active shooter in a school, if you wait for police to arrive, there’ll be an average of 12.1 deaths. If the attack is stopped by those already on the scene, the average drops to 1.08 deaths.”

Although there’s much more to teach and learn, Marrs said, he considers the Coast district to be “light years ahead” of most other districts in terms of security awareness, because “they’re already looking ahead and putting together a plan.”

Marrs, Project Guardian and the other presenters did their lectures and demonstrations for free.


Karrie Brown, district transportation manager, said, “Times have changed … We’re taking this training seriously … The possibility is always there, so we have to be prepared.”

She said she learned what steps to take if there’s an active shooter or other threat on campus, on a bus or elsewhere. In school, “Do you evacuate and flee? If that’s not possible, then do you know where you can ‘barricade in place’ with your students, and what you might have to do to be the ‘distraction’ for the shooter?”

Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Moore said, “It’s about being aware of your surroundings, thinking like a first responder and knowing what you could use as a deterrent … Most of it is common sense.”

 “This isn’t easy,” Adams said Tuesday. “It’s a miserable topic, but this is the world we live in now … Safety is inconvenient, but if everybody’s safer, it will be well worth it.”


This story has been updated to correct the state in which the Dec. 14 massacre took place.

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