Local schools stress and assess campus safety in the wake of Texas school shooting
Experts say the key to preventing similar violence is looking out for and reporting warning signs while also providing help to students who are struggling emotionally.
The country witnessed its deadliest school shooting in 10 years on May 24, when an 18-year-old gunned down 19 children and two teachers in a fourth-grade classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Local education leaders and experts say it’s a reminder of what schools can and should be doing in hopes of preventing such a horror from happening here.
In the San Diego Unified School District, which operates nine public schools in Point Loma and Ocean Beach, security protocols are constantly reviewed and updated, according to facilities communication supervisor Samer Naji.
The district is the midst of a “robust school security initiative that is providing physical security upgrades throughout the district, including improvements to security fencing, reorienting main offices with a single, monitored and controlled campus entry point during the school day and installing a modern emergency communication system and VoIP [voice over internet protocol] telephone system that facilitates one-way and two-way communication in the event of an emergency,” Naji said.
Additional upgrades to campuses may include vandalism and intrusion safeguards, including improvements to campus alarm systems and more security lighting and cameras as needed, Naji said.
Texas authorities say the Robb Elementary shooter, Salvador Ramos, entered the school “unobstructed” through an apparently unlocked door.
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Currently, more than 1,500 security cameras districtwide are monitored by the SDUSD school police dispatch team, which operates daily around the clock. The district’s Police Department, the county’s only full-time public safety agency serving kindergarten through 12th grade, consists of 41 professional sworn officers with the same training as any police agency in California.
“Our officers are trained in active-shooter [scenarios] and we regularly train with neighboring jurisdictions,” Naji said. “We have an officer assigned to each of our high school clusters, along with additional mobile patrol officers to provide extra support. School police also coordinate with other law enforcement agencies.”
Additionally, each SDUSD site “is required to conduct a minimum of two lockdown drills annually, and we are always adding training opportunities for staff,” Naji said.
Several campuses in the Poway Unified School District were locked down briefly May 26 as police investigated a threat called in earlier in the day.
San Diego Unified Superintendent Lamont Jackson stated in a May 25 email to families that “school safety and the well-being of our students and staff remains our top priority.”
The email also included links to resources to talk with children about school shootings.
“It sort of feels like a nightmare when you have these innocent children, at the beginning of their lives, lose their lives,” said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. “But it is another reminder of how important it is to have a protocol that is followed, because I do believe it can save lives.”
As more school shootings have happened over the years, school leaders and experts say they have learned more about the kinds of warning signs to look for and how to help students before they get to the point of thinking of or formulating plans for violence. The gunmen of the country’s largest school shootings, including Sandy Hook, Parkland and now Robb, were not older adults far removed from the schools but were all younger than 21 and had attended school in the communities where they carried out their attacks.
“All too often in the aftermath of these shootings, we find out that many people were concerned and that some people knew that an attack was being planned and they didn’t believe it,” said Bob Mueller, coordinator of special projects at the San Diego County Office of Education, which trains schools on threat assessment and how to respond to active-shooter events. “We need to be more responsive than that.”
Warning signs can pop up in a student’s drawings, creative writing, conversations with peers and, perhaps most commonly, on their social media pages, Mueller said.
They can be threats along the lines of “Wait and see what happens on Tuesday. They’ll get theirs,” or “You shouldn’t come to school on Tuesday,” Mueller said. They can be pictures of weapons. Or they can be statements about hurting people, validating acts of violence, voicing interest in acts of violence or weapons, or indicating a grudge, feeling they have been wronged or that they are angry or in pain, Mueller said.
It’s important to tell an adult at school, preferably an administrator, right away about a threat, Mueller said. If the threat was found online, the person who sees it should take a screenshot, he added.
When a school learns of a potential threat, it’s crucial for it to have a threat assessment team, which should include the principal, a school resource officer or another law enforcement officer, a school psychologist and a school counselor or social worker, Mueller said. That team is in charge of evaluating the threat and seeing whether it is substantive.
For example, a threat is more likely to be substantive if the student has access to weapons, has a history of violence and has made specific plans for violence, Mueller said.
A countywide school threat assessment team including law enforcement officers, school officials, prosecutors and mental health professionals analyzes threats reported to the district attorney’s office and decides what intervention is appropriate. In the past 16 months, the countywide team has reviewed 43 school threat cases, Stephan said. Of those, 10 were serious enough that the DA’s office filed charges.
“We do believe that this protocol has prevented the loss of life in several cases,” said Stephan, who prosecuted the case of San Diego County’s last school shooting in 2010, which injured two second-graders at Kelly Elementary in Carlsbad.
Mueller said a school assessment team’s response to a threat varies depending on how far along the student is in contemplating violence. If a student shows warning signs but hasn’t gotten to the point of formulating a plan to hurt others, the school can create a plan for the student that includes counseling, support and monitoring. For example, the plan could include a parent ensuring the child has no access to weapons at home.
The plan also should involve having an adult on campus who will meet with the student regularly and serve as a positive influence, Mueller said.
“The emphasis of the safety plan is, how do we bring this person back into the community and how do we recognize whether or not things are getting better or worse?” he said.
Beyond reporting potential threats, the most important thing schools can do to prevent shootings is to make sure that students who are struggling emotionally get the help they need before they get to the point of considering violence, Mueller said. School shooters often have said they felt betrayed, abandoned or wronged.
“We have to know our kids well enough to know when they’re hurting and we have to be able to respond well to support them,” Mueller said. “When we have kids who we think are unreachable, then we’re leaving the door open for that suffering to grow and fester into something that could lead to violence.”
Staff members at every school should go through their list of students, child by child, and designate at least one adult at school that the student is connected to, Mueller said.
“It sounds like a simple idea, but it’s the only way to be sure,” he said. “Somebody has to notice. If a child suddenly stops showing up to school, who’s going to notice and who’s going to find out why? If a kid appears to be sad or withdrawn, who’s going to ask why and try to help them, and not give up until things are getting better? We can’t leave this to chance.”
Mueller said school shootings, while devastating, are relatively rare, considering that there are more than 50 million K-12 students nationwide and tens of thousands of schools. Since 2018, 88 people died and 229 were injured in 119 school shootings, according to Education Week.
Mueller said the challenge is balancing preparation and prevention regarding mass shootings without making schools a place where children fear for their safety.
“Schools need to be a place where kids can come to and feel safe and laugh and learn and flourish,” Mueller said. “We just have to be careful that we don’t let ourselves be overcome by fear and make school a negative place for kids.”
Before Kelly Elementary in 2010, San Diego County had at least four other school shootings in recent history.
There were two shootings in March 2001. A 15-year-old killed two students and injured 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, and an 18-year-old injured five at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon.
In August 1996, a master’s degree student shot and killed three San Diego State University professors on campus.
And in January 1979, a 16-year-old killed the principal and a custodian and injured nine other people at the now-closed Cleveland Elementary School in the Lake Murray neighborhood. ◆