Being Prepared: Recent School Shootings Have Officials Ready for the Worst

Working sheriff's and police departments, school district is reviewing emergency response plans, running drills with new software and preparing staff for any event that would require teachers to lock their doors or evacuate students.

by Monica Vaughan, Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. / October 13, 2015

(MCT) - The same day last week the Marysville Joint Unified School District, in Northern California ran a drill at Edgewater Elementary School to test its new communication system, school shootings took place in Arizona and Texas.

They came on the heels of a shooting two weeks ago at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where nine victims were killed.

The incident prompted many officials to review emergency preparedness plans.

Working closely with the sheriff's and police departments, MJUSD is reviewing emergency response plans, running practice drills with new software and preparing staff for any event that would require teachers to lock their doors or evacuate students. The drills, while not state- mandated, are similar to fire or earthquake drills, which are required.

"The cornerstone of any response to any incident is planning ahead of time. The last place you want to be planning and putting something together is in the middle of a crisis," said Yuba County Sheriff Steven Durfor.

He and Superintendent Gay Todd clearly remember the deadly shooting at Lindhurst High School in 1992.

"We have a heightened awareness. We've lived it, and I think that's the difference from hearing it or seeing it on the news," Todd said. "When it actually affects your teachers, your students, your community, you take a much more aggressive stance in doing everything you can to ensure safety."

They're referring to the May 1, 1992, incident when one teacher and three students were killed and 10 were wounded when former student Eric Houston opened fire in C Building. Eighty students were held hostage for more than eight hours.

"It was sheer pandemonium and very, very chaotic," Durfor said.

"It's hard to even fathom that something like that even happened on our campus," said district discipline and attendance coordinator Jolie Carreon.

"You look at Oregon, and it brings it all up again. It's a sad situation, but we're going to be proactive and make sure kids' safety is our priority and work with law enforcement and take their advice." Now, teachers know where to move children if an evacuation is required, how to take shelter, or how to lock down, as well as how to account for their students and communicate to administrators if any are missing.

"Actually physically going through the process obviously embeds it to your memory," Durfor said.

It's becoming second nature.

"We now have the understanding of how to handle situations that aren't typically dealt with, at least they didn't use to be at school sites," Todd said.

Fifth-grade teacher Lindsey Choate said the drills and the new communication system help ease her anxiety.

"My concern is that they are safe and that they are loved," Choate said of her students.

Her students are prepared.

During a drill last Friday, a girl was in the bathroom when the lockdown occurred.

"She remembered the secret knock, so I let her back in the room," Choate said.

And, if they become scared, "we just do our breathing techniques to relieve anxiety."

"The unfortunate reality is that events like Lindhurst, and in so many other places across the nation, are becoming way too commonplace. It's an unfortunate reality of the world we're in, but we're completely remiss if we're not doing what we're doing here now," Durfor said.

Communication — the missing link

A map of the school campus was projected on a wall of a conference room at Edgewater Elementary School last Friday during a drill to test the new Catapult EMS communication software.

Within seconds of the start of the lockdown drill, pins appeared on the map representing teachers' locations on campus.

"The key to the Catapult system for us is to locate staff and students. So we then have a smaller group to go search for and to find out where they are," said Superintendent Gay Todd of the software.

The system is currently being used by five school districts in California. Marysville Joint Unified is the only district with anything like it in Yuba-Sutter, where administrators have said communication is a challenge during crisis events.

"I wish my son's district had it. I think every district should have it," said fifth grade-teacher Lindsey Choate. She has a second-grader who attends school in Plumas Lake.

Once a safety administrator is informed of a threat, they can use Catapult to trigger a red alert that then sends text messages to all faculty and staff, instantaneously informing them that a lockdown is required. Law enforcement officers, bus drivers, and other stakeholders all receive the initial message and updates as they occur.

"What's important is massive, consistent information to a large number of involved stakeholders in trying to manage and resolve that event," said Sheriff Steven Durfor, who participated in the drill.

"That certainly wasn't the case at Lindhurst (in 1992 when a shooter killed a teacher and three students, wounded 10 others and held 80 hostages for eight hours). I don't think at that time, that we at the sheriff's office even had cellphones," Durfor said.

"It also allows a teacher in lockdown situation, who may feel very isolated in a room full of kids, to know what's going on. If police are on campus, or the sheriff's department is here, that's key to keeping people calm and waiting the crisis out," Todd said.

"It just adds another layer of feeling secure," said resource specialist Lunden Duenas.

The software is linked to student attendance database. That means that once teachers are alerted to a lock-down situation, they can account for their students, and that information is viewable by safety team administrators. That is valuable information for teachers, parents and law enforcement officers.

"When parents do come and those phone calls start coming in, we can assure them thatwe have their students safely in a position where they are not in harm's way," Todd said.

"I think that was a big issue at Lindhurst. Everyone just scattered because no one really knew back then, other than earthquake drills, what to do," Todd said.

Communication with the system goes both ways. A teacher, for example, can send a message along with a photo alerting the safety team to a threat, or an update on a threat. Her GPS coordinates will be transmitted along with the information she communicates.

"When we are in a real lockdown, we typically don't know updated information. And, as teachers, that is the hardest part. With the Catapult system, it relieves a lot of anxiety," Choate said.

At Yuba College

Yuba College administrators are revisiting emergency procedures and looking to tackle physical security concerns in the coming months, said Chancellor Douglas B. Houston.

"The Sacramento City College shooting really brought it to light," Houston said.

"We need solutions that are flexible enough that we can respond to the unexpected."

Older facilities on campus pose challenges for faculty and students who may need to secure themselves in their classrooms and be able to communicate, Houston said.

"We need to equip our faculty with how to deal with incidents and behaviors in classrooms and learn how to de-escalate them," he said.

Those trainings and drills are difficult to arrange logistically, given that most instructors are not on campus at the same time, he said.

There is an alert system that "was imperative" when it was used on the Clear Lake campus during recent fires, Houston said.

Faculty has been doing tabletop drills.

"I'm contemplating whether we want to be more aggressive," he said.

Yuba City Unified School District

"We have looked to our policies and looked to refine our policies. We have a program and now we're trying to refine it," said Bruce Morton, director of student welfare and attendance.

Lockdown drills have been performed on every campus in the last couple of years, Morton said. And, local law enforcement agencies have undergone trainings — including an on-campus active shooter scenario — on Yuba City schools campuses.

"As much as you drill and you try, when it happens, you never know. You hope that when it goes down people know what to do. You just have to be ready," Morton said.

Gray Avenue Middle School and Yuba City High School are in the middle of town, which can cause unique challenges, particularly when police activity is nearby.

Complete fencing around the campuses was recently finished for safety measures, Morton said.

Teachers with guns?

To allow teachers to carry guns on campus is "not something the district is willing to do," said Marysville Joint Unified School District Superintendent Gay Todd.

"When you are carrying a loaded gun on campus, it poses a lot of additional issues. So we do not allow firearms of any kind on campus, unless it's law enforcement, and then we hope they have them," Todd said.

That's fine with Lindsey Choate, a fifth grade-teacher at Edgewater Elementary School.

"To have a loaded gun on campus, to me, it would be crossing the line right now," Choate said. "I think about all my little fidgeters."

If guns were to be allowed, extensive background checks and training should be required, she said.

"It would have to be a program separate from school."

— Monica Vaughan

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