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Mother Lode school superintendents respond to shootings, safety, and armed teachers


file (Union Democrat)
file Schools and courthouses take part in active shooter drills like this one at Adventist Health Sonora last November. (Union Democrat)

Several superintendents in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties disagree with President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm teachers to prevent school shootings.

Trump has repeatedly made the suggestion since the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Asked Monday what they think of giving teachers guns, Mark Campbell, superintendent for Calaveras Unified School District, denounced the idea.

“I am absolutely against arming teachers, or any staff, in response to this situation or at all,” he said. “That does not address any underlying cause, nor does it effectively present any level

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Several superintendents in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties disagree with President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm teachers to prevent school shootings.

Trump has repeatedly made the suggestion since the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Asked Monday what they think of giving teachers guns, Mark Campbell, superintendent for Calaveras Unified School District, denounced the idea.

“I am absolutely against arming teachers, or any staff, in response to this situation or at all,” he said. “That does not address any underlying cause, nor does it effectively present any level of positive and productive response.”

Dave Urquhart, superintendent for Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District, and Rick Hennes, superintendent for Twain Harte School District, also oppose arming school staff.

“I have very strong feelings about the recent school shootings,” Hennes said. “There is no way that I would ever support teachers or employees on a school campus to carry any type of firearm, whether concealed or on their hip.”

Educators are trained entirely differently than law enforcement personnel and generally have little weapons training, Hennes said. Their focus is on educating and providing a safe environment.

“The probability of improper use by a staff member or the possibility of a student getting control of that weapon are far greater than a planned school shooting,” Hennes said. “l can't see teachers unions and district school boards ever agreeing on the logistics of arming staff if the idea was supported by the state of California.”

Robert N. Griffith, superintendent for Summerville Union High School District, said he thinks it’s problematic to ask teachers to be both caring professionals and armed security. In California, it’s illegal to do so at this time. Mike Chimenti, superintendent for the Bret Harte Union High School District, agreed, saying teachers are not hired to be security guards or part of a police force.

Joe Aldridge, superintendent and principal for Columbia Union School District, said district staff have recently updated policies to align with current legislation that prohibits anyone outside of law enforcement from having a gun on campus.

Lonely at the top

Mother Lode schools have not been immune to threats or fear of something happening.

Last week, there was a social media threat at a school identified as SHS, information that concerned some students, parents and staff at Sonora High and Summerville High schools. The information went viral Wednesday in multiple states, and apparently originated in Ohio.

There was also a social media posting a week and a half ago of a gun photo and a potential threat at Edison High School in Stockton, information that concerned students, staff and administrators in the Bret Harte Union High School District.

At Columbia Elementary earlier this month, a student apparently barricaded a classroom with a teacher and possible 26 students inside, according to a Tuolumne County sheriff’s log.

The incident was reported ay 11:42 a.m. Feb. 16 as a “juvenile problem” in Room 31, near the gym, at the school on Parrotts Ferry Road. Aldridge said he could not discuss any details or release any information about what happened.

Sgt. Andrea Benson with the Sheriff’s Office said when deputies arrived they were told a student was being disruptive and had “already been removed.” Benson said there were no students in the classroom when this occurred.

Benson said the Sheriff’s Office has no information about the child.

Another “juvenile problem” was reported at 8:43 a.m. Thursday at Gold Rush Charter School in the Sonora Meadows area. A deputy took a report about a student who was suspended Feb. 20 because “he made threats that he is going to come to the school and find the girl who turned him in.”

Aldridge, who began at Columbia Elementary six months ago, has 16 years in education including time as a special education teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia. He helped supervise two classrooms of about 60 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in lockdown during the April 2007 shooting massacre that resulted in 32 dead and 17 wounded at Virginia Tech in nearby Blacksburg.

“I think we can’t look past the benefit of school counselors,” Aldridge said. “We could use more of these resources for kids, to increase the chances we don’t miss a kid. We always try to reach every kid.”

The Union Democrat reached out last week to school district superintendents in both counties to ask if they’re doing anything differently since the Florida school shooting, in which a 19-year-old expelled student opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and killed 17 students and adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, about 45 miles north of Miami.

Their comments in phone interviews and via email ranged from assurances of heightened awareness to support for survivors of the Florida shooting who are speaking out publicly about assault weapons and gun violence at schools, as well as talk about supporting a national school walkout planned March 14.

Sonora Union High School District

Patrick Chabot, superintendent for the Sonora Union High School District, said his staff at Sonora High, Cassina High, and other education facilities have prepared “as much as we can for something like this.”

The district has three counselors at Sonora High School and one counselor at the alt-ed Dario Cassina High School, Chabot said.

“They really help our students with anxieties, and mental health and therapy,” Chabot said. “All our counselors are parents, so they know how to talk to and assess young people and how to talk about problems.”

Chabot said the district had held no additional ALICE trainings since Feb. 14, but staff at Cassina High did a refresher on ALICE early Wednesday. ALICE stands for steps trainees are advised to take in the event of an active shooter incident: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.

“All our administrators are certified ALICE trainers,” Chabot said.

Staff at every school update their safety plan and emergency operations plan each year, Chabot said. Sonora Union High School District staff utilize an incident command system, the same as police and fire. They do lockdown drills and fire drills, but they don’t actually call them active shooter drills.

Morlan, the principal at Dario Cassina High, Theodore Bird High and Sonora Adult School, said he and School Resource Officer Gordon Winningham, an ALICE trainer, did a refresher Wednesday for staff at Cassina, including security, support personnel, counselors and teachers, 10 to 15 staff members altogether.

“Any time there’s an event nationally, we respond by giving a refresher to our staff members,” Morlan said. “We’re also going to talk to students in the future about their response. As educators, we need to be prepared for all scenarios on a compus. We at this district take this extremely seriously for protection of our students and staff members. It has to be a top priority for all schools. You can’t exclude yourself from the possibility.”

Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District

Urquhart said the level of concern is up since the Florida shooting among staff, students and parents at the schools he oversees, which include Tenaya Elementary in Groveland, Tioga High School in Groveland and Don Pedro High School in Don Pedro.

“At the same time this has happened so many times before,” Urquhart said last week. “We always talk to the students and ask them to be sure they talk to an adult about anything they hear on social media and anything else, that they bring that forward.”

Urquhart said he appreciates Florida students who are speaking out publicly about assault weapons and gun violence at schools since the Florida shooting.

Survivors of the Parkland shooting have appeared on national cable news and network news channels, including a live CNN town hall meeting with elected officials like Florida Senator Marco Rubio and National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch. They were not invited to a listening session Wednesday at the White House with President Trump.

“I'm really glad the students in Florida have come out with their protests to try and get some things changed,” Urquhart said. “And I think that might be what it takes, is the students coming

out and speaking out. Because so far it hasn’t worked very well with the adults bringing the information and concerns forward.”

Bret Harte Union High School District

Chimente, superintendent for the Bret Harte Union High School District in Angels Camp, was concerned about social media rumors at Sonora High and Summerville High when he spoke last week, and other social media information about possible gun violence at schools.

His voice shook with compassion as he spoke of the people he feels responsible for.

“It creates a sense of uneasiness with staff and students,” Chimente said. “Recent events naturally would create a sense of uneasiness with staff and students. We had a staff meeting last week to reference what happened in Florida.”

Chimente and other Bret Harte district staff heard about a student who received a tweet about a possible shooting at Edison High School in Stockton.

“We had a classroom conversation about Florida,” Chimente said. “But the concern here in Bret Harte district was more about the information about Edison High School in Stockton. Our primary concern is for our students’ safety here and helping our students understand that their safety is the top priority. It’s all our responsibility to keep one another safe, which includes having them share information they may have with a trusted adult.”

Calaveras Unified School District

Campbell met with Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio on Monday to talk about school safety and strengthening educators’ partnerships with law enforcement, and to discuss deputies’ abilities to respond to incidents at local school campuses.

Sheriff’s staff said Campbell and DiBasilio had a focused discussion on responses to active shooter incidents, emergency plans, door locks, and other site-specific campus security issues. Deputies continue to take part in on-campus drills, and they work with school site administrators to improve safety measures.

Campbell also talked about recent points raised by parents on school safety and reactions from law enforcement when reports of threats happen.

Parents have expressed concern, on social media mainly, with some direct concerns and complaints, about some cases involving aggressive behavior of students at elementary sites, Campbell said. Special needs students primarily are acting out. Disciplinary issues seem to be increasing in intensity in recent years.

Asked how many times deputies have been called out to Calaveras Unified schools so far this school year, how that compares with the last school year, and what threats have been reported so far this school year, Campbell said he does not have specific data on the number of actual direct threats made.

Campbell said people are talking at the high school and middle school about supporting the nationwide walk-out March 14. He’s referring to the National School Walkout, billed by organizers with Women’s March Youth EMPOWER as a call for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and allies to walk out of school for 17 minutes at 10 a.m. across every time zone on March 14, 2018.

Organizers say the walkout is intended “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods” and “to demand Congress pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship.”

Jamestown and Summerville

Contessa Pelfrey, superintendent for the Jamestown School District, said her district’s last lockdown drill was in November, and she and her staff have another planned within the next week. They also have regularly scheduled lockdown safety drills along with fire and earthquake drills.

In September 2015, a student at Soulsbyville Elementary School made death threats that were reported to law enforcement. The child allegedly told a teacher “I have a plan for everyone at the school.” In October 2015, the same student was overheard by a bus driver telling another student, “You will die. I’m going to kill you.”

Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office staff said the student was a pre-teen with a history of behavioral issues.

Deputy Rob Lyons told The Union Democrat the school most likely reported the threats because of heightened concerns about threats in the wake of a mass shooting plot uncovered about the same time at Summerville High School.

Four students were arrested in connection with an alleged plan to target teachers and students at a school-wide event in October 2015. Each student was charged with eight felony counts of conspiracy to commit assault likely to produce great bodily injury and were prosecuted as juveniles, Tuolumne County District Attorney Laura Krieg said.

All four were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, she said. State law precludes her from saying whether they were convicted because they were juveniles.
The Summerville High incident prompted ALICE trainings at the school for the first time in November 2015.

On Monday, Griffith sent a letter to parents, staff and students addressing school safety.

“The recent school shooting in Florida has increased the local, regional and national discussion on school safety,” Griffith said in the letter. “The essential question is how do we keep our students safe from the potential of a deranged shooter coming onto our campus and taking innocent lives?”

Griffith said one of the most aggressive solutions is to create schools with one entrance, one exit, metal detectors and armed security. He also mentioned the national debate on “restricting gun access to minors and the mentally challenged, increasing gun restrictions, and having armed presence on campuses.”

He said school officials are talking more about safety measures, and they’ll be seeking input from parents.

The Summerville Union High School District has two part-time crisis counselors and four administrators who do direct student counseling, Griffith said.

Since the Florida shooting, Griffith said, he and other administrators have asked school staff to keep an eye out for students, specifically to be observant for any students who may need extra support or someone to talk with.

“Students are our best informants on potential dangerous situations,” Griffith said.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.