On lockdown: Responding to school violence
March 24, 2016
70 bullet casings littered a mile-long trail, reminders of the shooting rampage that ended the lives of six — including the gunman — at Santa Monica Community College in June 2013.
The lone gunman, John Samir Zawahri, a 23-year-old former student, traveled from his childhood home to the school campus where he took aim at students and pedestrians with his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.
Students ran for safety as Zawahri shot outside the campus library.
“When you’re sitting in that kind of situation, all you’re thinking is, ‘this could be the last moment,’” Leilani Bennett, a student who had been completing her math final when shots first rang outside, said in an interview with NBC LA.
With an increasing frequency of school shootings in the past decade, restoring the feeling of safety in a school environment is a challenging problem that administrators and teachers face.
“Every single day … it crosses your mind that, ‘I hope today’s a safe day,’” Conejo Valley Unified School District Superintendent Ann Bonitatibus said, “and that’s something that probably didn’t happen 20 years ago.”
Attention toward school violence heightens after Columbine
The discussion on school safety has been ongoing for decades, beginning with school shootings as early as the late 1960s.
However, it was ultimately the 1999 Columbine High School shooting that brought the issue to national attention. In response to the tragic event, schools began directing resources and energy to decreasing the possibility of similar events in the future.
At first, efforts centered on physical barriers; schools across the country installed security cameras and metal detectors, required students to carry IDs, hired police, banned backpacks and implemented zero-tolerance policies toward violence.
By 2002, the United States Secret Service had completed project Safe School Initiative, a study of more than 30 school shooting incidents.
The Secret Service concluded that schools had placed false hope in physical security, when attention should be directed to behaviors of students before an attack occurs.
“In the case of Columbine, there was very clear evidence of disturbed thinking and plans being made, yet no one came forth to report the warning signs,” Las Virgenes Unified School District Superintendent Dan Stepenosky said.
Stepenosky’s doctorate dissertation focused on school shootings, including Columbine, and how to adapt lessons learned from these situations to create a safer campus environment.
“It’s not about gates, guns and guards,” Stepenosky said. “It’s about the connection between people … that act as a safety net for warning signs. That includes teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, nurses, counselors, principals, neighbors, friends, brothers and sisters.”
This shift in thinking has since become apparent in the academic community. Government funding spent on physical security barriers from the Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools program was cut by a third from 1999 to 2008. Meanwhile, funding for school counseling grant programs increased from $20 million to $52 million.
“While it is easy to see these shooters as plain evil, normally they grew up as good kids who went wrong,” psychology teacher Dr. Jeff Appell said. “The majority of them could be saved if they sought help before acting out and learned to express their rage through words rather than actions.”
Appell believes that many potential shooters are victims of bullying who allow their unresolved pain to turn into rage and revenge.
“Biologically, many of these youth have ‘hotspots,’ which are impaired frontal lobes,” Appell said. “This causes an increase in impulsivity and a lack in judgment.”
Local schools assess emergency procedures
Captain James Fryhoff of the Ventura County Sheriff’s department set out to create a new safety program in 2007 after being assigned to supervise three school resource officers in the Conejo Valley Unified School District.
“My captain at the time, Randy Pentis, asked me what we [as local law enforcement] were doing for school safety,” Fryhoff said. “But he wanted to come up with something that would make our schools safer.”
Fryhoff enrolled in a class in San Diego focused on forming threat assessments based off of findings from the Safe School Initiative. Fryhoff went on to create a program by researching other national school districts that had already implemented programs based on the prevention model.
“It’s called ‘threat assessment,’” Fryhoff said. “Schools publically identify team members that [can be contacted] if a student or adult hears a student making a threat.”
Fryhoff compiled all his findings into a comprehensive training packet, which he distributed throughout the county. Threat assessment team members then ask students questions and relay serious threats to local law enforcement.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about getting the child the help they need so they don’t lash out or cause an attack,” Fryhoff said. “Because even if we make an arrest, they are not going to be in jail forever for a threat.”
Since the inception of the program, Fryhoff has conducted several training sessions and presentations about the program for school administrators throughout Ventura County.
Ventura, Ojai and Conejo Unified School Districts, among others, have implemented the threat assessment program and training for school administrators.
“We aren’t just saying this might happen. Although the chances are very slim, the reality is, it can happen,” Fryhoff said. “The better we can prepare [ourselves] in advance, the better chance we have of survival.”
Teachers, administrators learn to prevent, react
Administrators and teachers must act quickly with an active school shooter.
“When [police officers] are notified of a school shooting, help can be up to five minutes away and those minutes matter,” Fryhoff said.
Though officers are trained to take out shooters before helping victims, it can take time to determine the threat.
To prevent further loss of lives, districts have safety procedure guidelines that disclose evacuation plans and actions for teachers to follow in case of an active threat.
“Generally during any security plan, you want to have a three way approach: rehearsal, appropriate response and recovery,” Bonitatibus said.
Bonitatibus acted as incident commander after a Feb. 4, 2015 school shooting in Frederick County, Maryland. As incident commander, Bonitatibus led police response after the shooting occurred.
“The incident only reinforced the importance of rehearsal and response amongst staff members since everyone knew what to do and where to go after years of repeated drills,” Bonitatibus said.
Teachers — who had rehearsed the scenario in the past — followed plans, securing all students and parents within safe classrooms immediately after shots were heard.
“We have to have drills every year for just that reason,” said Winnie Litten, a teacher and member of the Safety Committee at OPHS. “You want to hide but you want to be safe, too.”
Since serving on the Safety Committee, Litten has witnessed the growing concern from teachers towards how to react.
“Where people were asking what are the odds it’s going to happen here, I remember feeling anxious to plan,” Litten said, “but now you see [school shootings] happening more and more frequently; it’s definitely a part of the discussion of school safety and what to do.”
Incident commanders and first response teams, which include teachers and administrators at the school, execute safety procedures in an emergency. However, following procedure during an emergency can be a challenge.
“Every teacher becomes the incident commander of their own classroom … you have to do what’s best for your kids,” Assistant Principal Jason Meskis said.
Meskis currently serves as an incident commander for the district, and works alongside the local fire department and California Highway Patrol to practice emergency plans.
At a voluntary, district-wide training session Tuesday, March 22, the CHP advised faculty and staff to run, hide, and, if all else fails, fight.
“Don’t let yourself be a victim,” Meskis said. “Fight back if it’s the last resort.”
Teachers and faculty members across the district attended the training session.
“It made us realize the risk and what we are missing on preparation,” said Miguel Tabares, an OPHS maintenance staff member, “but it’s a great thing to know that everyone knows what to do in case of a scenario.”
In addition to offering the training, as well as distributing safety procedure handbooks to each school within the district, Oak Park Unified School District emphasizes personal connections between staff members and students to help minimize these possibilities.
“Our district philosophy is to have teachers, counselors and staff members in place to build positive relationships with students, in order for them to feel comfortable to speak with someone before [an incident] may ever occur,” OPUSD Superintendent Tony Knight wrote in an email.
With a population of only 1,500 students, Oak Park High School specifically relies on the increasing amount of campus supervisors and students to report strangers and inform administrators.
Similarly, the Las Virgenes Unified School District uses supervisors to help in a situation.
“The maintenance staff and groundskeepers are really the front line of defense. They are the most likely to see any suspicious activity,” Stepenosky said.
In the Simi Valley Unified School District, administrators are working in conjunction with the Simi Valley Police Department to organize their own formal, uniform training for all staff and students.
“Students and teachers need awareness and reinforcement of drills and action during a threat,” SVUSD Assistant Superintendent Hani Youssef said
Other school districts also rely on special devices, such as bar locks on classroom doors, to stop active shooters from entering classrooms. But these alone cannot stop a shooter.
“Ultimately, if someone wants to do harm, they will find a way to do it,” Bonitatibus said. “That’s why we put a lot of emphasis on rehearsal, how to respond and recovery.”