The deadly school shooting in Florida last week, followed by the arrest a day later of a Mira Costa High School student on charges of making criminal threats, has put school district and police officials in Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach on heightened alert.
Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale said the events that took place in Florida have caused school officials throughout the country, including here at home, to re-evaluate their emergency response procedures.
The shooter in Parkland, Florida who killed 17 people on Feb. 14 with an AR-15 tripped the fire alarm, which led students into the open.
“Now we are looking at what we do in case of a fire alarm,” Dale said. “Before, we would just evacuate. You have to ask the question now: what should you do? When there's a fire alarm, do you smell smoke? If not, well let's wait a minute.”
Both local high schools have a police officer stationed at least part-time on campus. In Redondo Beach, Police Chief Keith Kauffman said he wants to increase police presence on schools. But, should private school security officers, even teachers, have guns?
Kauffman said he is certainly open to the idea of having more trained gun holders on campus, though that would need to be a district decision.
“I'm open to any kind of discussion because something has to change,” Kauffman said. “A lot of people want to turn it into a gun debate. If you have someone on campus trained and armed, what could be better?”
While Mira Costa is prepared for the worst, Dale said the school could always benefit from more training. The school trains throughout the year on multiple types of emergency scenarios including fire, earthquake, lockdown, lock-in-place, evacuation and egress procedures.
“We feel prepared. We can keep the campus safe. But we will never stop training,” Dale said.
Last week's incident, where a student was arrested for making criminal threats on Snapchat, was the second one this school year.
In October two students were arrested for criminal threats, also on Snapchat, shortly after the Las Vegas shooting. Dale said the incidents show a combination of bad judgement and an increased state of awareness among the community at large after a mass tragedy.
“Talk about a lack of understanding about what's going on in the world,” Dale said. “Anybody who would post something like that thinking it was cool or funny is just not aware of what's happening in our country right now.”
Stepping up efforts
The school district and police department in Manhattan Beach began working on their emergency response procedures about four years ago, Dale said. Still, Police Chief Derrick Abell said he was beginning discussions with the district on doing more live training exercises.
“In the past we've worked with the school, but in light of what's been going on with what happened in Florida and throughout the country with information received through social media, it's imperative that we all get together and continue to work on these things and ensure we have something in place that benefits all that are involved,” Abell said.
Abell encouraged parents to be extra aware of what their child might be doing on social media. He said the department will always take any type of threat seriously, such as one that occurred last week just after the final bell had rung.
School officials quickly determined the student was not on campus, so they avoided any lockdown procedures, according to Dale.
“This is where you have a great opportunity to sit down with your kids and talk with them about the use of social media,” Abell said. “They might be putting something out there they think is a game. But in this day and age we have to take these matters seriously. We hope there are conversations about what's appropriate and what's not.”
As a principal, Dale said he could be assured the students on campus were safe, but worried more importantly that they “feel safe,” which is an entirely different thing.
“It's a sad state to think we have to be prepared this way all the time,” he said.
In the fall, Redondo Beach Unified School District employees completed training on wound care and every classroom is now equipped with a trauma kit. The advanced first-aid kits represent the last stage in a five-step process to prepare students and school administrators for what to do in case of an active shooter or other lockdown scenario, Kauffman said.
The police chief began implementing a coordinated emergency response training at every school district campus in Redondo Beach about two years ago when he started in the position. As in Manhattan Beach, Kauffman said they are committed to maintaining their preparedness and improving wherever they can.
“This needs to be a topic that's not revisited only because there was a shooting,” Kauffman said. “It needs to be at the forefront of all emergency planning for us, the school district and everybody. It shouldn't take a tragedy for phone calls to start happening."
Kauffman said the training among teachers often involved posing extremely tough questions. What would you do if a shooter entered the classroom? What could you use as an improvised weapon? Redondo Beach police have advised teachers to follow the Run, Hide, Fight response, which is different from the thinking less than 10 years ago that advised people simply to stay put.
“First step is to present the fact that there needs to be a paradigm in our response to how we look at emergencies on campus,” Kauffman said. “Unless you have a way to minimize or neutralize that threat, staying in place is not a very good option.”
In the past teachers were advised to call the school principal before activating an emergency alarm. Now teachers can trigger an alarm and are advised to call 911 directly.
There is also a website used in Redondo Beach and elsewhere called Sprigeo used to report cases of abuse, bullying or even possible terrorist threats.
“It shouldn't take a series of calls and then a principal to say we are going into active shooter mode,” Kauffman said. “It should be able to start right away.”
Connecting with students
Redondo Union High School Principal Jens Brandt said he has a high level of confidence the school is prepared. Over the winter break, the police department conducted drills on campus with full blown simulations.
While Redondo has not experienced any threats that rose to the nature of a criminal arrest, Brandt said the community continues to remain watchful.
“Something I really appreciate about our school and our community,” Brandt said. “People are very vigilant and we need to be in this day and age.”
New this year, visitors at every campus in Redondo Beach have their driver's licenses swiped by a card reader and scanned for possible sex offenders.
“Of course, we wish we lived in a world where it wasn't necessary to have these types of training but it's the world we live in now,” Brandt said.
Besides physical response to an emergency, Brandt said a big part of preventing tragedies is to connect with students on a personal level.
“We have a very inclusive campus,” Brandt said. “We are always looking for ways to connect with students at school.”
He encouraged students who feel passionately about preventing gun violence to get involved in politics and contact their elected representatives.