How safe are our schools?
PARENTS WITH CHILDREN in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District received a letter Monday from school officials about safety.
With two exceptions, every school in the Sonoma Valley district has an open campus, meaning there are no walls, locked doors or other obstacles to keep members of the public out. And despite a district-wide policy that campus visitors are required to stop at school offices and get a visitor pass, few apparently do.
Which, in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, leads to the question: How safe are our schools?
Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett said the Sonoma Valley Unified School District is better prepared than many districts and “takes security very seriously.” And district Superintendent Louann Carlomagno said that, by coincidence, on the Tuesday before the Newtown tragedy, she led a group of school psychologists and counselors to a safe schools training at county education offices in Santa Rosa.
Carlomagno said every school site in the district “presents its own challenges. We’re pretty good at directing people to get visitor’s passes, but not everyone does it.”
She added that many of the district’s older facilities – meaning most of them – do not have inside locks on classroom doors and that many classrooms with large glass walls are essentially “open fishbowls.”
Carlomagno said Deputy Superintendent Justin Frese is already pricing door locks to expedite a move to provide inside locks on all classroom doors. And there is money from the Measure H solar energy bond that can be used to provide blinds for exposed classroom windows.
Sackett said the district is particularly well-prepared in terms of responding to a shooting incident. “The county has had an active shooter response protocol since Columbine in 1999,” he said, referring to the Colorado high school shooting in which 12 students and a teacher were killed and 21 others were wounded.
Sackett said Columbine represented a “major paradigm shift” in police thinking about their response to a shooter. Rather than trying to engage armed assailants verbally and talk them down from acts of violence, the emphasis shifted to “quick resolution. The faster we act, the less bloodshed there is. The idea is to respond immediately to a threat.”
That policy came into play Dec. 10 when Sonoma Valley High School was locked down after a student reported to a teacher that another student had allegedly voiced threats about bringing a gun to school.
Police immediately identified the classroom and location inside it where the suspect student was seated and took him temporarily into custody.
Sackett said that, ultimately, the threat was based on a misunderstanding, “the threat was not credible in that regard,” and the student did not have a gun.
Nevertheless, the easily fueled student rumor mill, aided by social media, ramped up on Friday after the Connecticut shooting, with students buzzing about a renewed threat from the student rumored to be bringing a gun.
Those rumors were tracked to two students who turned out to be talking about the previous week, not something imminent.
Sackett said patrol cars were sent to all school campuses at lunchtime and after school on Friday to provide a reassuring presence, and a similar action was taken on Monday, Dec. 17.
Carlomagno reiterated school policy relating to students making threats, explaining that students found responsible for that behavior will be suspended with recommendations for expulsion. She said she could not comment on discipline taken in specific cases because the education code prohibits it, even though parents with children in affected schools understandably want to know.
She also praised Sonoma law enforcement for their presence on campus. “They’ve been great. The fact that we have a school resource officer on campus speaks volumes of our mutual commitment to the safety of our students.”
The most important part of a threat response, Sackett said, is determining the best course of action – a lock down in place or a campus evacuation.
“It’s up to each individual school district to work proactively with local law enforcement to develop protocols on each campus – whether to lock down or leave campus.”
Sackett said a fundamental policy at the heart of school security – set in state law – is that no weapons of any kind are allowed on campus or within 1,000 feet of a school.
After touring district campuses on Monday, Carlomagno said the mood in Valley schools “is somber. People are feeling the depths of sadness, people are very subdued. The good news is that teachers have all been great resources for talking it through when that’s appropriate.”