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Sonoma schools practice lockdowns

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As the “Code Yellow” drill was announced over the loud speaker at Sonoma Valley High School last week, the juniors in Room J-15 were cheerful and chatty, but they did have a lot of questions for their advisor, math teacher Michelle Clark.

“What do we do if we’re locked out, since the teachers aren’t supposed to open the door after they lock it?” asked one.

“What is the point of the secret (‘all clear’) phrase if the students know it and if the shooter is a student?” asked another.

“What happens if the shooter pulls the fire drill to get us all outside?” asked another.

“Why do you need to take our phones?” asked another.

Clark has been teaching for 15 years and she can’t recall ever having conversations quite like these ones with her students.

But times have changed. Already in 2018 there have been 14 school shooting in the United States – most tragically, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, which left 14 students and three teachers dead.

Then gun violence hit home in the North Bay this week when three veterans home counselors at Pathway Home in Yountville were taken hostage and killed by a former patient, who took his own life in the ensuing standoff.

No one is immune to the seeming epidemic of gun violence in America, and institutions need to be prepared. Especially schools. According to gun-control advocacy group EveryTown.org, there have been 290 school shootings in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in 2012.

As Vice Principal Doug Watenpool’s calm, clear voice announced the commencement of last week’s drill, Clark quickly locked the exterior push door with a hex key but admitted ruefully that she doesn’t have a key for the other door to her classroom, the one that leads in the high school’s No Name Café. And as she pointed out the blinds that would be drawn in a Code Red – the term used if there’s an active shooting on campus – she noted that the other wall of windows in her classroom has no blinds.

With two walls of easily breakable glass windows, the room didn’t look tremendously secure.

“Classrooms like these are pretty vulnerable,” admitted Sonoma Valley High School Principal Kathleen Hawing.

That said, when asked what she thought of the idea of arming teachers, Michelle Clark snorted.

“It’s a horrible idea,” she said. “As teachers we are juggling a million responsibilities, and they expect us to be a sniper too?

During the classroom drill, Clark provided examples of a Code Yellow situation. Maybe a rabid dog is loose on Broadway or police are looking for a suspect downtown. In this case, teachers are instructed to maintain as normal an atmosphere as possible.

In a Code Red, Clark said, danger is imminent.

“We would make ourselves as invisible and quiet as possible, lights off, door locked, shades drawn, phones taken away and turned off,” she explained. “We want no one to know if we are there.”

The school guidelines say that once all students are accounted for, the doors must be locked and no one else should be admitted. If a fire alarm goes off during lockdown, they are instructed to stay in the classroom.

“We do earthquake drills and practice evacuating pretty frequently,” said Hawing. “We get new staff and new freshman every year and we need to start all over again with the training.”

Each classroom across the district has a clipboard by the door with safety protocols including Code Yellow and Code Red information, checklists and class lists.

“We will probably have a Code Red drill before the end of the year,” said Hawing. “But that requires a thoughtful discussion ahead of time, assuring kids that it is drill.”

Hawing also noted that it would be valuable to practice what students should do if a Code Yellow is called during lunch or break times when students are between classes.

Sonoma Valley High’s armed “resource officer,” deputy Eric Smith, works four days a week at the school. He has an office in the main administrative building and can be found there helping with discipline issues during class time and out and about on school grounds between classes and during lunch.

Sonoma Valley High’s specific plan, featuring the codes Yellow and Red, has been in place for “decades,” said Hawing. Watenpool believes it was developed by law enforcement for school districts soon after Columbine in 1999. In the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman High in Florida, there have been dozens of emails about safety protocols between the school, local law enforcement and various stakeholders.

“We are looking at our plans to see if there are ways that they can be improved,” Hawing said. She added that schools haven’t taken it seriously enough in recent years, “so these are important conversations to have now.”

While there have not been any false alarms in Sonoma, Analy High School recently sent its 1,100 students home early out of “maximum precaution” and concern over their emotional well-being, after a threat was discovered on a bathroom wall. A student was arrested after teachers identified his handwriting.

A recent threat at Santa Rosa High School, written in black marker of a tile wall in a girls’ restroom, read “3/1 the school is gonna be shot up....” Santa Rosa police arrived, but found “no evidence to substantiate the threat” and the school was open on March 1. Police suspected the incident may be a copycat case of threatening graffiti.

Last Tuesday, March 6, Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa was placed on lockdown after graffiti was found in the boys’ bathroom that threatened “to kill everyone.” Parents were called to come pick up their children.

Throughout the SVHS drill, the students in Clark’s advisory didn’t seem very worried. One student said it really wasn’t ever a conversation among his friends until recently.

“I just don’t feel like there is anyone at this school who would do anything like that,” he said. “I feel safe.”

But a table of girls had some concerns.

First of all, they said there was “no way” they would give up their phones during an emergency.

“I would want to be able to reach my family,” said one. “That would be so important to me.”

Another girl said that while she doesn’t lay awake worrying about her safety she feels like anything is possible.

“I mean those kids in Florida didn’t think it could happen at their school either,” she said.

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.