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Preparing for the unthinkable: School safety after Sandy Hook 

Summer 2013

On Jan. 25 of this year—about six weeks after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut—California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson sent letters to all the state’s school district and county office of education superintendents reminding them that state law requires all public schools to maintain annually updated safety plans and crisis response protocols. Take advantage of regional safety trainings offered by the state, he suggested, and consider involving law enforcement and community service providers when drafting and implementing local plans.

He was preaching to the choir as far as Alhambra Unified School District Superintendent Laura Tellez-Gagliano was concerned. Within days of receiving Torlakson’s message, she fired off a letter of her own—telling the state superintendent that her district is already doing everything he was suggesting—plus much, much more.

As members of the public education community painstakingly re-examine their school safety plans in the wake of the murders of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Connecticut, Tellez-Gagliano and other Alhambra USD educators are eager to share what they believe is a winning formula for keeping students safe and helping them thrive. They developed it over the past eight years in close collaboration with social services providers, parents and law enforcement.

Alhambra’s Gateway to Success program combines hard-headed security protocols for locking down classrooms to evade a gun-wielding intruder with a wide array of counseling, parent education and mental health services aimed at identifying potential problems early in a child’s schooling. The focus is on support, education and prevention; but the program also has a strong security component.

“We reviewed the film from an ‘active shooter’ drill we did less than two years ago and the extent to which it resembled Sandy Hook was eerie,” says Laurel Bear Ph.D., Gateway’s director of student services. “We make these drills as realistic as possible.”

The hardware, security drills, campus plans, resource officers, these are all critical to Gateway’s success—but they wouldn’t be effective in reducing violence unless the district also included extensive student and family supports such as mental health evaluation and treatment for students and families, Bear says.

Alhambra’s comprehensive approach to assessing and addressing the needs of its students and families is paying off. Violent crime, truancy and suicide attempts are all down—as is crime in the surrounding community. The district’s annual school climate surveys indicate dramatic improvements in the way students and parents feel about their local schools.

But the keys to developing comprehensive school safety plans like Alhambra’s are research and time, two factors that may be in short supply as governance boards feel public pressure to respond quickly to the awful events at Sandy Hook Elementary.

School safety ‘forever changed’

It’s difficult to be dispassionate about an issue that’s so emotionally charged.

“I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I have never seen such heightened awareness,” says Vicki Bauman of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, who conducts regional school safety trainings for the California Department of Education. “We’ve had violent episodes on school campuses before, but nothing quite like this.”

Bauman’s been wondering whether school safety trainers need to make a fundamental shift in their emergency protocol—from the standard “shelter in place” strategy that assumes children are safer hiding as a group in their classrooms to a more aggressive approach that urges kids to scatter or fight back. “It would be a very controversial change,” she says, “but I am thinking as a mother and a grandmother. What would keep my grandson safest? At Sandy Hook, they did everything right. The children died anyway.”

In an essay published in the National School Boards Association’s American School Board Journal (reprinted from his hometown paper), former CSBA President Frank Pugh, a board member for Santa Rosa City Schools and NSBA director, put it succinctly: “Our opinion about what constitutes a safe school has forever been changed,” he wrote.

‘The things we know will make us safer’

Within days of the Sandy Hook killings, President Obama and state and federal lawmakers had introduced a raft of new legislation establishing funds for school resource officers, security hardware, mental health services and programs to either arm school staff or make it harder for certain Americans to buy guns and some ammunition clips. There are at least 20 bills related to school safety now making their way through California’s legislative process. State law already requires that every school draft and maintain updated safety plans, evacuation protocols and crisis readiness training—as state Superintendent Torlakson’s letter had reminded local school officials—and most local educational agencies have gone well beyond those requirements.

A number of local governing boards throughout the state have also moved quickly: Galt Elementary School District in Sacramento County, for example, has offered voluntary firearms safety training for school staff; trustees in San Luis Obispo County’s Coast Unified School District have approved new mandatory classroom locks, lock-down protocols and ‘active shooter” in-service classes.

Pediatrician Robert K. Ross—president and CEO of the California Endowment—says he is disappointed that much of the discussion in the immediate aftermath of Newtown focused on tightening school security. He believes there’s a student safety crisis in California public education, but he doesn’t think it will be resolved by stationing more armed guards on campus.

“We have a crisis of disengaged, disconnected, and disempowered young people, many of whom are wrestling with mental illness,” he says.

With a ratio of one counselor for every 1,000 students—compared with the industry standard of one counselor per 250 students—California’s school counselors have the biggest caseloads in the nation. “The best counselor in the world couldn’t keep tabs on 1,000 students, and we can’t expect them to,” Ross says.

“Instead of gates, guns, and metal detectors, let’s invest in the things we know will make us safer: counselors, health care, teaching positive behavior and making sure we have services to reach out to disconnected youth and pull them back on track. That’s the best way to make our schools and our communities safe and violence-free.”

Armed school safety officers

Recent front-page stories in the New York Times and Education Week documented a national rush to increase the number of armed officers on school campuses throughout the country—raising alarms from some critics who say more police inevitably means more students are cited for nonviolent crimes and funneled from school into the juvenile justice system.

Those stories—and the national sentiment they document—worry Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, a nonprofit clearinghouse for education information and analysis. “Too many reforms are driven by politics and ideology rather than what works,” he said, as part of his testimony at a recent state Assembly school safety hearing at the state Capitol. “Whatever we do needs to be informed by the data. There’s a real danger that the response will be for more police or resource officers on campus, even if the data show it doesn’t make schools safer. There’s a dramatic lack of information about what schools are doing and about what works.”

The question of how best to protect students can be a deeply polarizing issue in an era of limited resources. The debate is often characterized as a zero-sum game: Should a district invest in school resource officers or mental health crisis intervention? Programs like Alhambra Unified’s Gateway to Success make it a point to incorporate both—based on what local research revealed about students’ most pressing needs.

Putting threats in perspective

When CSBA Executive Director Vernon M. Billy convened discussions with the association’s officers and senior staff in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings, he insisted that everyone step back and take a hard look at what research says about the biggest dangers young people face.

“Some of our discussions got a bit heated,” he told a roomful of California education leaders at a meeting of CSBA’s Superintendents Advisory Council. “But we had to look at the facts. Suicide, for example, is a bigger threat than gun violence. ”

The numbers also show—as they have for decades—that students are still safer at school than they are in the world outside the schoolhouse doors.

“Our greatest fear isn’t a shooter, it’s an earthquake or wildfire,” said Wayne Sakamoto, a CDE safety and crisis response trainer who is safe schools director for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District in Riverside County.

For children in some of the country’s urban areas, gun violence is a huge problem—some have called it “slow motion mass murder.” But the violent deaths of young people in dangerous neighborhoods tend not to grab national attention the way the mass school shootings at Sandy Hook did, or the way Colorado’s Columbine tragedy did more than a dozen years earlier.

“In urban centers, most violence is not due to lone shooters,” says Ron Davis, chief of the East Palo Alto Police Department. “It occurs systematically, one shooting at a time.”

Davis believes school resource officers can make schools safer. But he says too many campus police wind up disciplining students for minor infractions, issuing tickets and citations and stepping into matters best handled by teachers and school administrators. “We can’t arm our way or guard our way” to safe schools, he says. “Done wrong, having police in schools can make them less safe.”

Keeping disaffected children in school and off the streets is an effective way to make schools and communities safer.

“I cringe when I hear about ‘out-of-school’ suspensions,” Davis says, believing that these students will either become the victims or perpetrators of violence.

Sakamoto, who volunteers as executive director of the California School Resource Officers Association, says police officers can play a key role in campus safety if they focus on building relationships with students. “Resource officers can be mentors and gain students’ trust,” he says, and can alert teachers and school administrators to potential crisis points in the lives of children and their families.

He suggests that governing boards “slow down and take a balanced approach” to keeping students safe, one that is based on solid research about local community needs. “We need to assess needs and look at the probability of certain events occurring. We don’t necessarily have to lock every door or install razor wire on the tops of all our fences.”

David Valeras serves on the Stockton Unified School District board; his trustee area includes Cleveland Elementary School—site of another horrific school shooting in 1989, when a deranged gunman killed five students and wounded 29 others and a teacher before committing suicide. Stockton, a city that in 2012 had more murders per capita than Chicago, is one of the 20-plus school districts in California that operates its own police department.

Valeras said having a district police force makes sense in a school system that covers 55 square miles and serves 47,000 students in 54 schools. “Our officers know exactly where every campus is, they know the layouts and have keys, and their response time is between two and five minutes to any school site,” he says.

“Ours is a total ‘customer-oriented department,’ ” he adds. “They are there to talk to the kids. It’s all about building trust.”

Valeras says he’s witnessed the benefits himself. On a recent ride-along with a district officer, he saw a student approach the officer to report that another student had ordered him to attack a classmate. The student was looking for a graceful way out, and the officer helped him find one. “A lot of times, these kids are caught up in things they don’t want to be caught up in,” he says.

‘Know your own community’

Forging good relationships between the police and students, between different branches of law enforcement and between schools and local communities is critical.

“You’ve got to know your own community,” he says.

That’s a sentiment echoed in CSBA’s recently updated school safety handbook, “Safe Schools: Strategies for Governing Boards to Ensure Student Success.” The book recommends a comprehensive approach to keeping students safe that relies heavily on assessing the climate and crime statistics from each campus and designing plans that address the most pressing needs.

Alhambra Unified’s Bear says her district got a rude awakening after conducting a comprehensive school climate survey nearly 10 years ago—a move that turned out to be the first step in a long process leading to creation of the district’s awarding-winning Gateway to Success program for school safety.

“We’d been patting ourselves on the back about how great our school climate was, until we asked our students and staff,” she says. “We found that morale was low and parents didn’t feel comfortable on campus. Now our parent meetings are packed. We do school climate surveys annually, and that teaches us so much.”

Knowing what issues matter most to the welfare of students, families and other key members of school communities is a vital part of any comprehensive school safety plan. Experts say the best plans are designed by local educational leaders working in partnership with law enforcement, community service providers, students and families to identify potential problems before they become crises.

CDE School Health Education Consultant Stephanie Papas agrees that the best planning is local. “It’s impossible for me, sitting up here in Sacramento, to determine what’s best for a district,” she says. “Students are a great resource. It’s important to do a needs assessment. What’s appropriate for your students and staff? Those decisions need to be made at the local level.”

She does, however, have one piece of general advice: “I would urge caution when considering some of the expensive safety programs out there,” she says. “The tried and true things tend to be the simple things: comprehensive safety plans, good protocols and training, a sign-in system for visitors. Make sure your policies are current and are being followed. Eighty percent to 90 percent of school safety issues can be addressed by a whole school approach that combines safety measures with counseling
and student support.”

Carol Brydolf ( is a staff writer for California Schools.

School Safety Kit—Tools, resources and training

Once upon a time, most school safety trainings consisted largely of earthquake  preparedness and fire drills. The scariest it ever got for most baby boomers was during the Cold War, when some schools directed students to huddle under their desks in the unlikely event that the Communists dropped the big one. Those days are gone.

Nowadays, especially in the months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, local educational agencies are likely to find themselves conducting simulated school lockdowns, teaching students to gather silently behind locked doors in darkened classrooms and await the all-clear signal.

California state law requires each school to maintain a comprehensive safety plan that includes an assessment of campus-based crime and to adopt appropriate strategies and programs that will protect students and keep them safe. Plans must also address the school’s procedures for complying with existing laws related to school safety. These include child abuse reporting procedures, routine and emergency disaster response plans, school discipline rules and hate crime reporting rules.

LEAs don’t have to go it alone, and they shouldn’t try. There are a host of school safety resources available on CSBA’s online School Safety resource page—from CSBA and elsewhere—that can guide school safety planners as they navigate the complex challenges involved in protecting students while maintaining the openness and access that’s critical to maintaining a nurturing sense of campus community.  includes:

“In Case of Emergency: Schools That Prepare for the Worst Can Avoid a World of Hurt”: This Spring 2010 California Schools feature story provides an extensive overview of school safety and disaster response policies and practices in place then. CSBA’s Governmental Relations staff continues to track a host of state and federal school safety-related bills introduced in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy and will keep members posted.  

“Safe Schools: Strategies for Governing Boards to Ensure Student Success,” the association’s recently updated comprehensive school safety handbook, can be downloaded at no charge from the School Safety page. It contains detailed descriptions of a wide range of strategies—from prevention strategies to combat cyberbullying to considering specific campus security protocols and hardware—to help governing boards work closely with their local communities on comprehensive safe schools plans and crisis response.
Other CSBA resources, sample policies, archived webcasts and advisories on communications and other aspects of school safety.

Links to other safety resources from the California Department of Education and U.S. Department of Education to state, national and even international nonprofits and other pertinent sources.

—Carol Brydolf