Southern California schools step up defenses against modern threat – San Bernardino Sun

During the Cold War in the 1950s, Bert the Turtle showed school children how to protect themselves from an atomic attack in the nine-minute film, “Duck and Cover.”

Some 70 years later, school children are still performing duck-and-cover drills, but now the enemy is different. And so, too, are the measures that school districts are taking to keep children and employees safe — safe from attacks from disturbed, weapon-wielding people.

The focus on those efforts sharpened Tuesday when 18-year-old Salvador Ramos shot his way into an elementary school in Texas, barricaded himself in a classroom and slaughtered 19 fourth graders and two teachers before police killed him.

“My heart sunk because I immediately thought of my child,” said Kayla Ellis, whose 11-year-old son is a fourth-grader at Indian Hills Elementary in Jurupa Valley. “The fact that I had to have a bedtime talk with my son … I had to teach my son what to do. I didn’t think I was going to have to have this conversation until high school. Evil is all around us.”

Parents on Wednesday proposed strategies to keep attackers out of schools or deal with them more effectively once inside, many of which have already been implemented by school districts in Southern California: Armed guards, security fences, single points of entry, panic buttons, restricting access to firearms and even placing bullet-resistant plates in backpacks. But some parents pushed back against making schools look like “fortresses.”

“We’re constantly reviewing with our sites and our counseling staffs the possibility exists and what can we do to reduce the likelihood (of a shooting),” said Martin Plourde, superintendent for Whittier Union High School District. “So we’re not doing anything knee-jerk to the Texas shooting, but it does serve as a grave reminder that we always have to be on our toes.”

In some districts, change followed tragedy.

In April 2017, a man showed up at North Park Elementary in San Bernardino, asking to see his wife. Cedric Anderson went to the classroom of Karen Elaine Smith, where he shot her and a student to death and wounded another student.

“Since North Park, there have been large-scale security improvements across the district that are still with us. One of the most visible measures is a single point of entry with a buzzer system,” said Maria Garcia, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino City Unified School District, who described a system employed by other districts as well.

A person seeking entry will push a button on a device similar to a Ring camera. They are required to display identification to a viewfinder. Once inside, their name will be checked against the Megan’s Law database of sex offenders. If they are there to visit a classroom, they will be escorted. Anyone who wants to pick up a child must be on a list of approved people.

That was an issue on Halloween 2017 when Luvelle Kennon stormed through the office at Castle View Elementary in Riverside after demanding to pick up his child. He took teacher Linda Middleton hostage and, after an hourslong standoff, was killed by police as he held scissors to her neck. The Riverside Unified School District then installed a lock on the door that leads from the office to the interior of the campus. Non-essential gates are closed and locked after student entry and dismissal.

State law requires schools to hold periodic fire drills, but legislation requiring schools to have active-shooter drills failed in 2020. Nevertheless, such drills, which involve ducking, covering, staying silent and locking classroom doors, are regularly held. Those drills are part of a state-mandated safety plan, which districts are required to update every year.

In Orange County, districts work with agencies such as the Orange County Department of Education, which offers support and training. In recent years, school districts have added proactive threat assessment training, which addresses different types of threats, behavioral indicators and how to respond to them, said Dareen Khatib, the department’s administrator of health and wellness. Schools regularly conduct drills and simulated emergency exercises.

Last month, Seal Beach police conducted active-shooter training at McGaugh Elementary. It was an all-hands-on-deck training event, an opportunity for officers to familiarize themselves with the layout of the campus and exits and practice ways to approach a shooter.

Lt. Nick Nicholas said the department, prior to the Texas strategy, already had planned another drill before school is set to convene in the fall. But the recent shootings in both Texas and New York – where 10 Black people were killed in a shooting at a Buffalo grocery store – have only underscored its importance, he said.

In Long Beach Unified, the fourth-largest school district in California and serving more than 70,000 students at 85 public schools, much of the safety monitoring goes on behind the scenes, including social media monitoring, said Chris Eftychiou, LBUSD’s public information director.

“Each school … practices drills for a variety of potential scenarios, including an active shooter situation,” he said. The district has invested more than $11 million in perimeter fencing since 2018 and schools now have a single point of entry with the buzzer system and visitor screening. Nine full-time, two part-time, and four supervisorial armed school security officers monitor the district’s larger high schools.

In 2018, Torrance Unified spent $15 million on security upgrades to all of its 29 campuses — citing increased incidents of mass violence against students in school. All classrooms are equipped with “quick lock” capabilities, spokesperson Tammy Kahn said. There are 1,600 surveillance cameras on campuses.

Officials from schools in the Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley and Whittier areas described additional steps they might take in response to the Texas shooting and how they are dealing with the emotional fall-out among students and faculty. One district was launching more preparedness drills, many sent letters to teachers and parents and others were double-checking security arrangements.

Montebello Unified is hiring more campus security aides — something that was in the works before the shooting — interim superintendent Mark Skvarna said.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho announced Wednesday that in the wake of the Texas shooting, the district will consider expanding the number of school counselors and will improve its mental health support for students, with a focus on preventing attacks.

That would be welcome news to Ellis, the Jurupa Unified parent, who said schools should employ psychiatrists who are trained to identify students who might resort to violence.

“I think what needs to happen starts with mental health,” Ellis said. “Maybe people are waking up to the fact that criminals don’t care about laws.”

Carvalho also said the district is looking for ways to reduce the number of entrances at schools and identify for students and staff the most protected locations on school grounds in the case of an attack.

But Officer Gil Gamez, president of the union that represents officers for the Los Angeles School Police Department, questioned whether its officers are prepared to effectively respond to an active-shooter situation. The department has lost more than 100 officers since June 2020, he said, when the LAUSD school board cut the department’s budget by about a third and removed officers from campuses in response to Black Lives Matter activists who want the department to be fully defunded.

Since officers were placed in patrol cars, the response time now is normally 10-20 minutes, he said.

“When our officers were assigned to the campuses, they were there. And they knew the campus layout. They had the firepower and the tools to run to where an incident was happening within minutes,” Gamez said.

Staff writers Mike Sprague, Robert Morales, Brennon Dixson, Kristy Hutchings, Tyler Evains, Mike Hixon and Linh Tat contributed to this report.

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