The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut is spurring Mother Lode educators to refresh their memory on safety plans, but it has also left them wondering if they can do more to protect students.
California’s public schools superintendent and top homeland security advisors sent a letter to school administrators Saturday, urging them to review safety procedures and communicate them to the public.
As a result, many local superintendents and teachers started the week by discussing their policies. While most voiced confidence in safety procedures, others expressed doubt that schools can ever secure themselves from shooters.
Much of the discussion centered on measures already in place as the result of events such as the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, which was eclipsed by the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in its number of fatalities.
“We’ve done drills and scenarios for quite some time just so that we can try to prepare for anything that may come,” said Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele.
But he added that the Dec. 14 tragedy underscores the need for law enforcement officers at more campuses, a request he has previously made to the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.
“We just haven’t been able to put those resources where I think they need to go because of budget constraints,” Mele said. “It’s getting to the point right now where we’re going to have to truly prioritize.”
Guidelines followed by many school districts in California suggest lockdown drills at least twice a year, according to Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin.
In what Sonora Elementary teacher Karen Sinclair called an “intense” incident, Sonora Elementary School’s lockdown procedures were put to the test Dec. 6 after staff reported seeing a person with a gun behind the campus.
Principal Chris Boyles announced a lockdown with what Sinclair called lightning speed, and teachers pulled students inside from their lunch recess.
The lockdown meant that students waited inside classrooms, behind locked doors, until the Sonora Police Department eliminated the possibility of a threat. Sonora Police Chief Mark Stinson said the department found no evidence of a person with a gun behind the campus.
While he and school staff earned praise for their quick response, Boyles said they have identified areas for improvement — particularly in the area of notifying parents.
Thankfully, the Dec. 6 lockdown at Sonora Elementary lasted only an hour and caused little more than worry for the teachers and a shortened lunch period for some grades.
But law enforcement officials remain painfully aware that the community might not be so lucky someday, thanks to the dozens of school shootings that have taken place in the U.S. since Columbine.
Several years ago, the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office and other local agencies developed a protocol for dealing with situations like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.
As part of the process, they’ve familiarized themselves with the terrain at local campuses. For example, Summerville High School was the scene of a training exercise for several agencies when class was out of session last year, according to Summerville Union High School District Superintendent John Keiter.
“We’re fairly prepared for any kind of shooter-on-campus scenario,” Keiter said, citing lockdown drills and other preparations.
Several other school administrators said they were confident in their safety plans.
“We’re feeling very well-equipped to handle a situation like that,” said Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell. “We’re not wanting to overreact, but not wanting to underreact either.”
Sonora Union High School District already utilizes security guards and cameras, according to Superintendent Mike McCoy. It has what he described as a “very strict’ requirement that visitors check in at the main office.
“Even before these incidents, we had extensive plans for student safety in place,” McCoy said. “We have an intelligent plan that we work every single day, and safety is our No. 1 concern.”
The district planned a drill that will take place on a school day in February, requiring students and local agencies to practice the rules they’d follow if an “active shooter” was present on campus.
The Calaveras County Office of Education was contacted by the sheriff’s office Monday morning to discuss further training for school staff, according to county superintendent Kathy Northington.
“I don’t want us to have to lock down our schools like we lock down our prisons, but if that’s what it takes to keep our kids safe, so be it,” Northington said.
A few school superintendents, including Bret Harte Union High School District Superintendent Mike Chimente, emphasized that school shootings are an issue that educators can’t tackle by themselves.
Chimente is considering installing another surveillance camera at Bret Harte High School. But short of implementing the prison-like security Northington described, there may not be much more the district can do, he said.
“I don’t know that you could truly stop someone who wanted to get on this campus,” he said. “It’s just a scary situation that we all find ourselves in...and it’s going to be interesting what comes down from the state and federal level about this.”
Chimente pointed out that only the “good guys” will obey rules about registering at a school’s main office or be deterred by fences.
Also at issue is the focus of school policy, with safety plans typically concentrating more on internal problems such as bullying, Bulkin said.
She anticipates seeing safety plans “fortified” as a result of the Connecticut tragedy.
Yet another challenge arises from budget cuts, with some schools using money previously designated for safety to preserve jobs.
Bulkin pointed to the reduced availability of school counselors for students who are mentally ill.
“Safety is expensive,” she said. “We don’t have school safety money and we don’t have money for counselors. ...This is an opportunity to really reevaluate priorities.”
Tight county funding has kept Mele from realizing his longstanding goal of placing deputies at each school, which he said would have a range of all-around benefits for students.
“Our world has evolved,” Mele said. “When I was a kid, you never would have thought of the need to have deputies at elementary schools.”
Students at several schools observed “moments of silence” Monday in honor of those who lost their lives in the Connecticut shooting. Where they weren’t kept inside due to rain, flags flew at half staff.
Some schools have planned small gestures to honor victims. For example, some Sonora High School teachers intend to wear white and green — Sandy Hook Elementary’s school colors — to coincide with a memorial service later this week in Connecticut.
Both the Tuolumne and Calaveras County offices of education have made staff psychologists available to local schools, in case staff or students are upset by the tragedy.
Sonora Elementary teachers have exercised special restraint in mentioning the Sandy Hook massacre, since they didn’t want to worsen anxiety in students already nervous about the Dec. 6 lockdown.
“The school kind of kept it quiet,” said Sonora Elementary counselor Kerri McCluskey. “The tiny little kids, they had no clue at all. That was a deliberate and conscious effort.”
She advised parents to reassure younger students that they’re safe and that good things are still happening in the world.
“For older kids who might be more savvy, reassure them that these kinds of things happen infrequently and focus on things they can to do help,” McCluskey said.
If you focus only on the dark parts of life and society, it’s really hard to pull yourself out of it,” she said. “But something good comes even from things like this.”