On the morning of Jan. 30, 2013, Teresa Taylor was teaching her agriculture class at Taft Union High School when administrators announced over the loudspeaker that the school was on lockdown.
“When the lockdown call came through the intercom, we knew. They didn’t say, ‘This is not a drill.’ You knew from the tone of their voice (that something was wrong),” Taylor said from her office at Shandon Joint Unified School District, where she now serves as superintendent and high school principal.
At the Kern County school, Taylor said she and her students locked the classroom doors, turned off the lights and sat on the floor away from windows.
In another building on campus, student Bryan Oliver, then 16, shot a classmate and fired at a second before dropping the shotgun after some coaxing from an adult, according to The Associated Press.
Taylor uses the memory as a stark reminder that schools must remain diligent in their emergency preparedness, she said, especially regarding the protocols for lockdowns.
“Everyone says this, and they said it there (in Taft), but no one thinks it will happen to them,” Taylor said. “But I think it could happen anywhere at any time.”
In May, students at Atascadero High School and North County Christian School endured a live lockdown for two hours after a teacher reported hearing what sounded like a gunshot. Four months prior, Pat Butler Elementary School in Paso Robles also went on lockdown after students reported seeing a man with a gun near school.
The massive response to those reports showed how local law enforcement and school administrators have made it a priority to prepare for a shooter on campus.
“The frequency (of training) is increasing because the active shooter protocol is such a hot topic right now,” sheriff’s Cmdr. Aaron Nix said.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office teaches an active shooter response class every two years. The next one is this fall.
Ongoing training at schools includes talks with law enforcement, monthly meetings with school district administrators and the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education, multiple classroom drills countywide each year, and at least one full-fledged annual lockdown drill with law enforcement involvement.
The last time there was an active shooter on a San Luis Obispo County campus, Nix said, was in 2003 when a 15-year-old boy walked to the front of his sophomore English class at Arroyo Grande High School and pointed a handgun at the teacher before he was subdued by two fellow students. No one was injured.
But national incidents have raised the bar on safety preparations, starting with the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado and, more recently, the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“We were teaching our active shooter response class within a year of the Columbine incident; it truly caused a paradigm shift in law enforcement,” Nix said, noting that before then, police nationwide were trained to set up a perimeter around an incident and wait for SWAT to go in.
Now, every officer is taught how to enter an active shooter incident either alone or in teams. Training includes classroom discussion on shooter mentality as well as an afternoon of live-fire scenarios acted out in full gear at a converted warehouse at Camp San Luis Obispo. Up to 20 peace officers take part in the daylong training, with participants ranging from city police forces to officers with probation, parole and State Parks.
“It can take two months to get everyone in the county trained,” Nix said.
Cross-training the various types of responders in one place is vital, said Dave Keil, director of operational services and district safety coordinator at the County Office of Education.
“It’s so the different law enforcement (entities) know what to expect when working together and how they’re going to respond to these things in a unified way, because different agencies do things differently,” he said.
Every year, law enforcement and school districts work together to improve training among officers, teachers, students and staff. At a recent County Office of Education meeting, the concern came up about how to improve older designs on door locks that require a key on the inside and out.
For example, some local school districts, such as Shandon and San Luis Coastal, installed rubber stopper-type “Lock Blok” devices on their doors to allow teachers to keep their doors locked but ajar during the school day.
“In the case of a lockdown, all you have to do is pull it and the door closes and locks automatically,” said Chris Dowler, deputy director of student support services at San Luis Coastal Unified School District. “We have them on every door accessible to the outside area in offices and classrooms.”
His school district installed them about a year ago.
Looking ahead, communication and improved technologies will be a common theme as officials tackle ways to enhance lockdown practices.
In the last year or so, the Sheriff’s Office and Cal Fire created a digital mapping system with aerial photos of every campus in the county so law enforcement can become familiar with a facility’s layout.
“The mapping project is a work in progress,” Nix said. “We have it now so any member of law enforcement with a mobile data terminal in their patrol car can punch in some data and have a map of any campus in the county pop up on their screen.”
Exploring ways to communicate emergency information on social media is also being discussed at the County Office of Education level and at some districts.
“Five years ago, using social media to get the word out wasn’t even in the discussions,” Brescia said, noting that instant communication, even more instant than a phone call, is the new norm.
“School districts will have to keep adjusting, using as many forms of communications as they can,” Brescia said.
Still, no matter what communication districts chose to use, officials urge them to make sure the information distributed is accurate.
“There are many ways for misinformation to get out these days,” he added.
Part of that is the balance of getting accurate information out to parents in a timely manner, knowing a flood of student text messages will be sent during an emergency, officials said.
What to expect
The Tribune reviewed lockdown procedures at most K-12 public school districts countywide, finding similar protocols customized to each campus.
No one entity provides standardized best practices on how to conduct a lockdown, but officials from San Luis Coastal, for example, say they’ve combined uniform procedures from the County Office of Education, U.S. Department of Education and other school districts and then run that information by police and fire departments, who also provide suggestions to improve the steps. Authorities say combining information from various places and customizing it to fit their campuses is a common practice for school districts to develop procedures.
In general, parents can expect that their kids will be taken from the halls and moved inside classrooms or to a safe space with the doors locked. Then they’ll be told to remain out of sight and quiet, away from windows, while they wait for further instruction from law enforcement or school administrators. They may or may not have to turn off their cell phones. No one is allowed in or out. In general, control of the campus at that point transfers to law enforcement.
“Even if someone indicates they’re a police officer and asks to open the door, we are trained not to,” said Taylor, the Shandon superintendent. “They could slide a business card under the door, but it’s remaining locked. We know law enforcement will have a key.”
If an intruder makes it into the classroom, staff has been taught a specific type of response, Dowler said.
“What they’re abiding by is the scenario of you hide, but be ready to fight,” he said. “Throw a book at them, throw a chair and then run away. You fight and try to escape.”
Getting out of sight typically involves positioning oneself low on the floor, or hiding. Some schools may also barricade locked doors with furniture or trash cans.
That protocol was enacted at the recent North County school lockdowns. In those cases, students reported sitting on the floor in dark classrooms and hiding under desks. At Atascadero High School, students said they caught glimpses of authorities with guns out searching the campus.
In the end, no suspicious activity was found at either campus, and the lockdowns were cleared.
An official lockdown is intended to protect students and staff from an intruder, or suspected intruder, on or near campus. At most campuses, one step under a lockdown is the “shelter in place.” Those procedures are reserved to protect students from incidents happening outside the school in the surrounding community, such as a chemical spill, police chase in town or a mountain lion sighting, said James Brescia, county superintendent of schools.
At the beginning of each school year, parents are expected to provide their emergency contact information. Officials advise parents to give the number that they will be best reached at — not leaving a home number if they will be at work all day, for example. During a lockdown, parents should wait to receive a message from the district — which, in most cases, is typically through a mass-notification calling system to phones.
Most districts advise parents to stay away from campus, for their own safety and the safety of the kids.
But officials realize “the average parent is going to show up on campus,” Brescia said, so each district has a point person who will give parents direction.
Depending on the situation, law enforcement may also set up a staging area near campus for media and parents to gather and receive information.
“There’s no standard scenario for any of these kinds of things,” Dowler said. “If police are setting up a staging area, then that’s where they should go if they’re going to come.”
In the Atascadero High School lockdown, several parents quickly gathered outside the school, waiting anxiously for news as authorities set up a temporary command center nearby.
How 5 SLO County school districts alert parents about a lockdown
What do parents do if a school is on a lockdown? In most situations, they will be notified that their child’s school is on lockdown. But the method in which that occurs varies from school to school. Most schools reported using mass-notification systems that involve calling all parents at the same time to deliver a pre-recorded message indicating the school is on lockdown. Here’s a look at some districts’ alert methods (local school districts not listed couldn’t be reached for comment):
San Luis Coastal Unified School District: The district has used group emails and mass phone calls to send alerts to parents, but the school’s messaging system doesn’t currently support texting. Texting and updating a schools’ website are future possibilities, but plans to use Twitter and Facebook aren’t being discussed yet.
Lucia Mar Unified School District: The district is working on a new notification system beyond the pre-recorded mass calling system. That could include a mass texting or email system. A few secondary schools also use Twitter, and some elementary/secondary schools use Facebook.
Paso Robles Joint Unified School District: The district uses many forms of communication, including texting, Facebook, email and a pre-recorded phone call system.
Atascadero Unified School District: Atascadero uses a system that enables its schools to email and leave phone and text messages with parents and staff. It also posts incident updates on its website.
Shandon Joint Unified School District: Shandon uses a pre-recorded mass calling system and is hoping to add a text-messaging function in the next school year.