Poway schools created a real-time school-safety hotline following last month’s mass school shooting in Parkland Fla., which left 17 students and teachers dead. Escondido High School ran active-shooter drills on campus.
North County schools are revisiting their safety plans, conducting training and reaching out to parents to prevent similar tragedies and to make sure that schools are prepared for the worst-case scenario.
School shootings are both rare and catastrophic, forcing educators to walk a fine line between preparation and paranoia.
“The chances of your child dying in an attack on their school is one in 3 million,” said Bob Mueller, executive director student services and programs for the San Diego County Office of Education. “It’s highly unlikely, but it’s absolutely certain it will happen somewhere. We shouldn’t live in fear that it’s going to happen, but we need to take reasonable action to be ready.”
On Tuesday, Poway city and school officials hosted a forum in Rancho Penasquitos to let families know of the systems in place to protect children in the case of a school assault. The event covered strategies for preventing school attacks, as well as nuts and bolts details about how the schools would respond to a threat.
Officials also announced a new tip-line for school threats or incidents. The line, 1-844-PUSD-TIP (844-787-3847), will be constantly monitored by officials with the San Diego Police Department and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Paik said.
“We had an older tip-line, but this one goes directly to law enforcement,” she said. “This is much more immediate, much more effective at reaching the right people.”
That’s key, because school shooters typically announce their intentions, District Attorney Summer Stephan told about 500 concerned parents and community members at the event.
“In 93 percent of school shootings, they said something, and told someone, what they planned on doing,” she said. “In 70 percent of cases, they told two people.”
For anyone who finds themselves the unwitting confidant of such plans, she said, “It’s a moral responsibility to tell someone.”
Safety preparations also include projects in the works long before the Florida shooting, such as fencing, security cameras, gated entries and other site security measures. They also involve new approaches to active shooter scenarios, based on a system developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, known as “options based response” or “run, hide, fight.”
That strategy trains teachers and students to seek the safest way off campus, or into hiding, in the event of a school shooting. And it prepares them to defend themselves in the worst-case scenario, by taking action to disarm or incapacitate a shooter. The San Diego County Office of Education has rolled out an options-based plan, developed in partnership with regional law enforcement.
“It’s better than just having one tool in your toolbox,” said Escondido Police Chief Craig Carter, president of the San Diego County Police Chiefs & Sheriff’s Association, which has endorsed the strategy. “Now, we have many tools.”
The “run, hide, fight” approach calls on staff, and in some cases students, to quickly assess the situation and choose the safest response.
If the shooter is on the opposite side of campus, or the students are already outdoors at lunch or recess, evacuating the area and fleeing to a safer location may be the best choice, officials said. If they’re not sure they can get away safely, they should use “lockdown” procedures to hide in classrooms. Barricading doors and blocking windows make lockdown locations harder targets.
If those strategies fall short, the plan covers potential confrontation with a school shooter.
“If there is a body of students in a classroom and the assailant makes their way into the room, then they should consider some type of defense,” Carter said. “That could be barricading the door or defending themselves. Even having something to throw at somebody could be a defense…. We’re trying to say, don’t be a victim. Have a plan.”
In Escondido Union High School District, students and staff at Escondido High practiced active shooter drills the week after the Florida shooting, while Orange Glen High had just run the drills a week earlier.
“They went ahead and went through the ‘run, hide, fight’ protocol with the kids,” said Rich Watkins, director of Pupil Services and Interventions for the Escondido Union High School District. “We made it clear to them that we want them to be prepared if there was a worst-case scenario with an armed intruder, and that our staff are committed to student safety.”
Escondido Union School District, which includes the city’s elementary schools, has also trained staff in the method, and is considering how to introduce it to students.
“Middle school students could probably handle a different type of training than third- or fourth-graders,” said Superintendent Luis Rankins-Ibarra. “So we don’t traumatize students, we handled it in an age-appropriate way.”
Vista Unified School District has also adopted the method and is training administrators and then staff on the protocol. Unlike Escondido, however, Vista schools won’t train students to “run, hide or fight,” out of concern that the drills themselves could be troubling or traumatic.
“The thought right now is if we train all the adults well to run through that checklist in the first four of five seconds they hear gunshots, they can direct those kids,” said Jeff Geyer, safety and environmental manager for the district.
Districts have also updated their infrastructure to make schools safer. In Escondido, school officials have built fencing to enclose elementary schools that were previously open to the public, and installed gated entries to control the flow of visitors. Vista schools have also added fences, reconfigured school grounds to create single points of entry, and installed cameras to monitor the sites, Geyer said.
As San Diego County schools faced a wave of copycat threats in the weeks after the Florida shooting, officials have worked hand in hand with police and sheriff’s deputies to sort out credible threats from the hoaxes.
“Through the past few weeks, our district has forged an even closer relationship with local law enforcement,” said San Marcos Unified School District Superintendent Melissa Hunt. “I’m meeting with our sheriff and fire chief next week. So it’s really taking stock of where we are and how we can improve.”
School officials also stressed the need to prevent school threats before they happen. Carlsbad Unified School District Superintendent Ben Churchill said administrators recently met with representatives from Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit that provides preventative training programs for students, staff, and parents.
At the Rancho Penasquitos event, Stephan told families that 95 percent of school shooters were students at the campus they targeted, so awareness and vigilance is the best defense against school violence.
“Someone is a parent of that kid,” she said. “Someone is a teacher of that kid. Someone is a friend or knows that kid. So we can’t feel that we are not in control, because we are.”
Parents at the Poway Unified School District forum said they were impressed.
“I thought it was very thorough and addressed a lot of questions that were on our minds,” said Jennifer Dettloff-Carter, whose children attend Westview High School and Black Mountain Middle School in Poway. “One of the best things they brought up is the communications about threats, as well as preventative measures.”
For educators who have spent their careers studying how to help students learn, being thrust into the front lines of public safety is an unexpected but essential responsibility.
“The fact that we’re having to drill about this is really a sad state of affairs,” Rankins-Ibarra said. “I never thought this would happen in my career. But the fact is, we have to.”