In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Conn. two months ago, Inyo County school administrators and law enforcement have improved their comfort level in regards to school safety through planned changes to school campuses, a review of existing emergency plans, training and the on-going communication initiated at a school safety meeting held at the Inyo County Office of Education, Jan. 15.
The following is the second in a two-part series covering recent improvements to school safety.
“I’m comfortable with the steps we’re taking,” said Bishop Unified School District Superintendent Barry Simpson. “We’re never going to be totally prepared, but we are less vulnerable now than we were before. We’ve made some good improvements.”
Bishop Police Chief Chris Carter expressed a similar assessment of school safety. “They’re (Bishop schools) doing a great job addressing issues and staying current,” he said.
One common thread expressed at the safety meeting was the closeness of each school’s community. “We know our kids,” was repeated by administrators, Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze and Chief Probation Officer Jeff Thomson when the issue of an internal shooter was broached, primarily in terms of early intervention to identify kids in trouble and resolving problems before they are out of control.
School administrators asked questions of law enforcement and mental health professionals at the meeting called by County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer, revealing that, while remote, they had all considered what would happen at their campuses in the event of a shooter. The questions were as unimaginable before the Dec. 14 shooting.
According to Lutze and Carter, Round Valley, Bishop Elementary and Lone Pine schools have had walk-throughs with officers. Death Valley is scheduled for a walk-through this month and Big Pine is in the process of reworking its emergency plan.
Lone Pine schools’s walk through preceded the safety meeting and, according to Superintendent Victor Hopper, simple, no-cost changes have already been implemented.
County schools and law enforcement have worked closely in the past and each school has an emergency plan. But it was acknowledged at the meeting that additional security measures could be put in place. The most secure campus, considering what was described as the “sieve” of Bishop High School, was the Bishop Indian Head Start facility which is in virtual lock down with a video surveillance system along with a requirement that all visitors sign in and scheduled awareness drills.
Despite the Head Start program’s existing policies and procedures, Lutze said there are still some “common things that need to be looked at.” He pointed out supplies staff would need in the event of any emergency lock down, like first-aid kits and snacks. “Schools need to know how and where to evacuate,” he said.
Bishop High Assistant Principal Dave Kalk outlined the standard emergency procedure: a three-in-one drill once a year covering earthquake, lock-down and evacuation drills. “Since Sandy Hook, the high school is taking the lead for the district.
We’ve discussed a lot of suggestions and reminded teachers and students of the procedures. Now, the kids see they will be at risk if the procedures are taken lightly.”
Home Street Middle School Principal Pat Twomey’s campus, with only two entrances, is not as open as either the high school or the elementary campuses. Twomey still pointed out that improvements could be made with gates to funnel traffic through the main gate, providing locks for each wing as well as classroom doors. Other considerations from Lone Pine Superintendent Victor Hopper and Joel Hampton included plates on door windows to obstruct a view into classrooms and video surveillance systems.
The issue of communication gaps within the schools was brought up by Big Pine Superintendent Pamela Jones.
The district staff held a full review of the emergency plan after the Sandy Hook shooting but then questions were asked by crossing guards. During the wind event that fell far short of the predicted gale-force winds last October, child care facilities were unaware that Bishop schools evacuated. The facilities, run by the County Office of Education, are on or close to schools and hold drills similar to the K-12 campuses, but the program in Bishop had no idea Bishop schools were closed early.
Simpson said that issue is being resolved, as BUSD is coordinating with the county office to improve communication.
Sheriff Lutze was blunt about the once-a-year drills. “Holding drills once a year is not enough. You need to have random drills, update your procedures. We have aerials of each campus, but we need maps.” He acknowledged that money for big changes may be an issue. “The mind-set has to change,” he said. “All our county campuses are open. But we can take steps that are low- cost. We can train parents to sign in when on campus. We can start small and include training for everybody: volunteers, janitors, bus drivers, train them just like you train the teachers.”
Lutze reminded the educators of a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding that allows the Sheriff’s Office and schools to share information.
Chief Carter was even more blunt. “All the physical security won’t stop (a shooter). The key is to train the staff to respond appropriately and coordinate with law enforcement. We mitigate what’s bad from getting worse. Our procedure is standard for threats or violence on campuses. Job number one is to find and terminate the threat. We don’t have your school plans; we need to, and now.”
“Find and terminate” has been standard law enforcement procedure for an active shooter in a school since the Columbine school shooting in 1999. According to Lutze, prior to Columbine, officers would wait for back-up and try to identify the shooter(s)’ location. That procedure came under heavy criticism. County law enforcement and emergency responders hold training procedures once a year or every other year, Carter said. Those training sessions include California Highway Patrol and any gun-carrying law enforcement officer including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the United States Forest Service.
Faced with the enormity of the consequences, Home Street’s Twomey brought up the issue of all the unknowns in the event of a shooter on campus. “In real life, the staff will make decisions,” said Lutze. “But they need a guide.”
A big part of that guide will be provided later this month when the California Emergency Management Agency will hold a four-hour Active Shooter Awareness training session for school administrators as well as area fire departments.
Dan Moore, Round Valley district superintendent, brought up the real elephant in the room. “There is no scenario to protect against everything,” he said. “We need to get to it before it starts.”
Director of Behavioral Health for Inyo County Dr. Gail Zwier attended the meeting to address the issue of identifying potential threats before those threats turn violent. “What we know from the past,” she said, “is that the person told someone what he was planning. So, how do we break the code of silence. Kids have a fear of the adult response so we have to create trust. Second, the person is often bullied so we need to continue existing (anti-bullying) programs. And, third, the person is desperate to the point that death is OK.
“In our community, we know our kids,” Zwier said. “We can identify kids in trouble and manage aggression ahead of time.” Zwier’s department can do outreach in cases where there is a crisis and the person is a danger to themselves or others. In the event someone made a specific threat to a specific person, Behavioral Health must tell the target and law enforcement.
In the case of a present threat, Carter encouraged contact with law enforcement, but in a phone interview said there was no hard and fast rule. “The important thing is to bring it to someone’s attention, anyone you’re comfortable with. We won’t let it lay,” he said, stressing that information will be confidential.
Both Zwier and Lutze encouraged school staff to follow their gut. “If something feels wrong, it probably is.” That something could be as relatively minor as teenage angst. At the very least, identifying the source of the problem would allow the person to resume a life without the interference of that angst.
“We have a lot going for us,” Lutze said in a phone interview. “We can spot things faster; we know the norm and we can see changes. Kids are more open here than they are in the cities. The campuses just have to be vigilant about their surroundings and know what’s out of place.”