June 8, 2013
One morning in early April, on the grounds of Richard Gahr High School in Cerritos, the crack of at least 100 gunshots pierced the calm. A few explosions shook the ground.
A few weeks later, at a K-12 charter school in rural Oregon, two masked gunmen burst into a gathering of teachers during a staff-development day. They took aim at the unsuspecting faculty members and opened fire. Bam! Bam! Bam! The shots went off like firecrackers.
In both situations, the bullets were blanks, and the gunmen were law enforcement officers or volunteers conducting a drill.
Had they occurred on the prior side of Dec. 14, 2012, these events might have seemed excessive. It’s easy to imagine how the drill in Cerritos might have raised some eyebrows — the media spectacle involved, the use of not only simulated rounds and flash grenades, but also hundreds of people, including clergy members, local business leaders, community safety volunteers and even students drenched in fake blood. And it’s difficult to imagine that the Oregon drill — a complete surprise attack that left teachers terrified — would have happened at all.
But the landscape has shifted since those five awful minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when a heavily armed gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, rampaged through the halls, killing 20 students and six adults at point-blank range before turning a gun on himself.
Adding to the sense of heightened alert was Friday’s deadly school shooting at Santa Monica College, the latest scene of an all-too-familiar tableau: police running to and fro with guns, dazed students being interviewed, emergency vehicles racing around with lights flashing.
The news cycle after these bloody outbursts tends to go from hot to cold on short order, but their imprint on the way communities approach school safety has been steadily rippling outward — especially since the Sandy Hook tragedy six months ago.
That horrific piece of American history has cast a spotlight on a certain type of school-safety exercise that, until now, most K-12 schools didn’t really have the stomach to adopt: the active-shooter drill.
“It’s a hard thing because teachers are teachers — they want to teach,” said Kit Bobko, mayor of Hermosa Beach, where the Police Department may soon begin active-shooter drills in the schools. “They don’t want to have to think about, ‘Oh my gosh, if a guy with a shotgun comes into my room, what am I going to do?’ … But we need to have some sort of plan in place.”
Though colleges had been more apt to conduct elaborate versions of the shooter drills before Sandy Hook, the unthinkable carnage in Connecticut has spurred many K-12 schools in the Los Angeles Basin and beyond to follow suit.
Sandy Hook has given rise to other safety measures, too — such as doubling down on counselor hours, installing more cameras on campus or prohibiting parents and the general public from walking onto the premises. But the active-shooter drill could prove to be the tragedy’s most visible legacy.
Active-shooter drills — or intruder-on-campus exercises, as some officials prefer to call them — are similar to the lockdown drills that many schools have long practiced, wherein students and teachers hunker down in the classroom with the doors locked and blinds drawn.
The active-shooter drill is a variation on the theme, but with the creepy factor kicked up a notch.
To be sure, most K-12 schools don’t favor the showy version of the drill showcased this spring at Gahr High. But they often do incorporate the impersonation of a bad guy. Usually, this is a member of law enforcement who roams around campus, jiggling door handles and peering into windows.
Essentially, this new focus marks a shift in mindset, from keeping intruders off campus to dealing with an undesirable who is on campus.
Largely because state law doesn’t require such exercises — as is, schools are required only to conduct earthquake and fire drills — the methods of preparing for the nightmare scenario vary by district.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, administrators this summer will, for the first time, be required to attend training on how to handle an active-shooter situation. Heretofore, the training has been geared toward lockdowns, said Steve Zipperman, chief of the LAUSD police department.
“If an active shooter is on campus, perhaps a lockdown isn’t the best option,” he said, adding that the appropriate response “may involve quick relocations to different locations, either on or off campus.”
LAUSD also has beefed up security. In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the district allocated $4.2 million to hire 1,000-plus safety aides to guard elementary schools.
In Long Beach Unified, where all 90 schools are required to conduct a lockdown drill every fall, the tragedy prompted the district to compel each school to have another go at it. This time, though, law enforcement officials and administrators wandered the campuses, clipboards in hand, turning the door latches and checking the windows.
In Torrance Unified, schools this spring introduced new elements to the lockdown drills they’d long been practicing. For one, schools there now use the term “intruder on campus.” Also, the drills have introduced the novel concept of taking flight when necessary.
At the K-8 Hermosa Beach school district, officers may soon storm elementary school campuses toting guns loaded with paint-ball munitions, revealing who has been “shot.” The student body wouldn’t be involved in the paint-ball drills, which could begin this summer, but teachers might be, as well as selected students — perhaps members of a Boy Scout troop, Bobko said.
In addition, the city and school district could begin conducting age-appropriate, active-shooter drills for the entire student body in 2014.
At Cal State Northridge, the campus police department has been practicing active-shooter drills for nearly a decade, said Anne Glavin, the university’s chief of police.
The campus actually hosted a drill just a week after Sandy Hook, but it had been planned for months. The participating students were deaf — Cal State Northridge has a robust program for this population — which gave officers a sense of how to handle the potential curve ball of directing students who can’t communicate verbally.
Glavin also teaches a workplace violence program on campus that, among other things, instructs staff and faculty on how to spot potentially violent students.
“When we’re talking about red flags, one sign alone might not be a problem, but when you start getting two, three and four, that’s a concern,” she said.
Warning signs could include a person who has a fascination with weapons, or a student whose papers often involve murder and mayhem, she said.
Some officials believe public schools in California are way behind the curve when it comes to preparing for campus violence.
Manhattan Beach police Officer Stephanie Martin points out that while schools are required by law to conduct fire drills, the number of school-fire fatalities over the past 50 years is zero. (The last deadly school fire happened on Dec. 1, 1958, when a massive blaze claimed the lives of 92 students and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.)
“In California, schools aren’t mandated to do lockdown drills and that’s a travesty,” she said. “Fires aren’t killing our kids; violence is killing our kids.”
Indeed, Sandy Hook wasn’t the only school shooting in 2012. There were at least three others in the United States, as well as 13 other mass shootings. In all last year, 88 people died in the 16 shootings.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, has long been sounding the alarm on school-safety plans, noting that as late as 2009, roughly a third of all middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District didn’t even have one.
For years, he’s been trying to pass a bill to crack down on the inaction. Since 2007, he has introduced it four times, never successfully, Lieu’s aides say. The reasons? Too expensive. Too onerous.
In a sign that times have truly changed, Lieu introduced the bill for a fifth time after the Sandy Hook shooting, and it appears to be sailing through. Senate Bill 49 was unanimously approved in the Senate on May 29, and now must go before the Assembly.
The bill puts the California Department of Education in charge of ensuring that all schools have a safety plan. It also requires the plans themselves to include procedures related to active-shooter and terrorist events.
Some procedures for dealing with an armed lunatic on campus might sound obvious, but are easy to forget in the heat of a crisis, Lieu said.
“Say you have an active-shooter situation and you’re trying to keep your classroom quiet,” Lieu said. “With all the adrenaline pumping, you might not think to turn off the volume on your cellphone. Maybe you think to lock the door, but not to barricade it shut with your desk.”
School safety experts also recommend that, should an intruder barge in, office personnel get on the school intercom and use direct — even blunt — language about what is happening.
“Use simple language — no coded language,” said Susan Chaides, who, as the project director over the safe-schools division of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, trains school administrators on school safety. “Say: ‘There is an intruder — an armed intruder.’ It doesn’t matter if they (the intruder) can hear.”
(During the Sandy Hook massacre, a quick-thinking employee in the office flipped on the loudspeakers, capturing the horror but likely saving many lives.)
Also blurry is the line that separates adequate preparation on the part of school districts and hysteria.
The month after the Sandy Hook shooting, a school board in Montpelier, Ohio, approved a plan to arm the custodial staff with handguns. In April, a school district in Minnesota purchased bulletproof whiteboards that could be used as a shield to protect teachers.
Chris Bentley, the former president of the Hesperia Unified school board, the High Desert’s largest school district with 21,000 students, is skeptical of heavily armed school police forces and the now-popular, active-shooter drills.
Bentley cited the U.S. Secret Service’s 2002 Safe Schools Initiative report prepared in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. (www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf)
“There’s 10 key findings that they have,” he said. Among them: ” ‘Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.’ ”
Bentley, a father of four school-age children and a former Marine, would rather have school faculty and staff trained on how to deal with these emergencies.
“When push comes to shove, I want somebody to have a cool head in the classroom, as we hear all the hero stories coming out of Sandy Hook and wherever,” he said. “Yes, the cavalry’s going to get there, but it’s going to take time.”
Fontana Unified made national headlines in January when the district bought 14 military-style rifles to arm the district’s police force. Bentley believes that was likely an expensive waste of their time.
“If you’re going to buy high-powered rifles, you need to be trained on them, on a pretty regular basis,” said Bentley, a former Marine. “It’s not just like your sidearm.”
The suspect in the Santa Monica shootings was ultimately confronted by two Santa Monica police officers, and one officer from Santa Monica College, who exchanged gunfire with him in the campus library, ultimately killing him.
Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said the officers used their training, which had in part been developed through studying other mass shootings.
“The Santa Monica Police Department co-trains with the Santa Monica Community College Police Department and we engage in rapid response training, which is consistent with the lessons learned from many of these other mass shootings — unfortunately those that have happened both in college settings and elsewhere,” Seabrooks said. “That training was clearly utilized by the three responding officers who neutralized that suspect, as one would expect.”
One disconcerting aspect of not only Sandy Hook but also the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo., is that both schools were actually pretty secure.
Columbine employed an armed guard, who exchanged gunfire with the killers. At Sandy Hook, Lanza was greeted by a locked glass door. He took aim with a rifle and shot through it.
“They had cameras everywhere, and buzzer systems,” said Mary Sue, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos. “Their staffs were pretty well prepared in lockdown systems.”
Sue noted that the very same day law enforcement officials were performing the dramatic practice raid at Gahr High, she was at a school leadership conference featuring the two district superintendents who were in charge during the Sandy Hook and Columbine tragedies. Interestingly, those leaders stressed a different kind of preparedness: making sure mental-health services are available for children who need it.
In keeping with this advice, the ABC district has — in addition to installing more security features on its campuses, such as cameras, better lighting and emergency call buttons — boosted its mental health programs. The district recently partnered with the USC School of Social Work to assign to every school social work interns who get to know the students on a personal level.
In Hermosa, the district increased its counselor hours after Sandy Hook, and expanded a program — called MindUP — that teaches students how to better manage their emotions.
“It’s teaching kids about how your brain works — how decision-making works,” said Patricia Escalante, the district’s superintendent. “You can choose to be an optimist. And you can control your feelings.”
In Redondo Beach, educators are trying to keep an eye out for kids who might feel marginalized.
Frank DeSena, assistant superintendent of student services in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, said, sometimes, the simple act of a principal saying hello to a wayward student by name can make a big difference.
“Let’s look at the type of person who has been a shooter,” he said. “The common thread (among school shooters) is most of the time they were the outlier type of young people. They weren’t connected to their school or their community.”
Making them feel more connected, he added, can start with a simple hello.
Staff writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.