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School Shootings Surge Stirs SRO Concerns

Arcadia Police Officers quickly swarm the campus a few years ago when a threat was issued via social media and a lockdown initiated. Luckily, no one was harmed in this instance. – Photo by Terry Miller/Beacon Media News

15 violent school shootings have been recorded this year

By Terry Miller

Last week in Denver, a few miles away from Columbine High, yet another mass shooting took place at a STEM school. One student died trying to save his fellow students and eight others seriously injured. The police responded very quickly to the numerous 911 calls and identified and arrested two suspects. The previous week, another student died trying to save his fellow students at a university in North Carolina.

Thus far in 2019, there have already been 15 school shootings in the U.S. in which someone was seriously hurt or killed.

The full scope of gun violence in the U.S. and abroad is immense. In the U.S. alone there were 346 mass shootings in 2017, or about one per day. Despite attempts by nonprofits like the Gun Violence Archive and by government agencies, it is impossible to grasp the enormous impact this has on our educators, students and deeply concerned community and parents.

Despite all the recent publicity and seemingly all-too-frequent school shootings, the National Center for Education Statistics, a government education website, says: “Violent deaths at schools are rare but tragic events with far-reaching effects on the school population and surrounding community.” 

In the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), there is a clear and dynamic approach to preventing violence on campus. A strong mental health policy with social and emotional learning helps create relationships and foster trust, according to Hilda Ramirez Horvath, public information officer (PIO) for PUSD. Creating a calm and safe environment is paramount in the district’s eyes and school safety plan in conjunction with a superb relationship with the Pasadena Police.

Eric Sahakian, assistant superintendent for school services and security at PUSD, told Beacon Media that they have security officers on campus. Additionally, a proactive rather than reactive approach is key in the district’s approach to flagging any potential threat assessment.

Approximately 15 years ago, PUSD had its own school police officers; however due to budget constraints then (as now) that program was abandoned and the Pasadena Police Department (PPD) filled in the gap. Although there is no memorandum of understanding between PUSD and PPD, Sahakian says they have a good working relationship with Chief Perez and Sergeant Thompson who are very aware of the schools in the Pasadena area.

Every student enrolled in PUSD has a chrome book and a PUSD assigned email address which can be monitored by a process using a program called Gaggle, which can identify key words in communications that may be flagged as a possible threat or harmful to the student or someone else.

PUSD works with Greg Boggard and his company The Bogaard Group (Greg is the son of long-time Mayor Bill Boggard). His company specializes in “security strategy” which includes surveillance and investigations, executive protection, workplace violence prevention, and special event management, according to their website.

School-based policing is considered one of the fastest growing areas of law enforcement. After the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many people — including President Trump — said there should be school resource officers inside every school. However, District budgets don’t always allow for such indulgence.

In Arcadia Unified School District (AUSD), for example, a school resource officer (SRO) is dedicated to the district’s schools. His name is Detective Ken Lee from the Arcadia Police Department (APD). The district splits the cost with the city.

“While budget times have been lean in recent years and our funding from the state is inadequate in our opinion, our board of education and superintendents over the years have made funding for this position an absolute priority. In addition to our SRO, we also have four full-time security officers at Arcadia High School. Another great benefit and safety feature of Arcadia schools is our small district size and rapid response time from the Arcadia Police Department, which we greatly benefit from. While many school districts in our area and throughout the country encompass a geographical parameter of dozens and sometimes hundreds of miles in width and scope, our largest school, Arcadia High with more than 3,000 students, is just one mile away from the police department. In fact, eight of our schools are less than two miles away from the police department and all 11 of our schools are located less than three miles away. This translates to a rapid response time measured in seconds. Our schools are even closer to the fire department, with all of our schools less than 2.5 miles away and several of them a mile or less,” said Ryan Foran, AUSD PIO.

“Thanks to Measure I, passed in 2006, we have been able to significantly upgrade and add a lot of safety features on our campuses. In recent years, we have added security gates and fencing on all of our campuses which include automatic locking gates, increased video surveillance, buzz-in systems at schools, increased lighting, and other safety enhancements. We have a district safety committee that is always reviewing, analyzing, and making recommendations to continually improve safety. All of our schools also have their own safety committees. Likewise, we have been concentrating a lot on the emotional well-being of our students and staff in recent years to help people who may be having a difficult time connecting emotionally or mentally to their school. This year, we hired four additional full-time counselors and now have at least one full-time counselor at each of our schools, bringing us to a total of 23 counselors across the district. Each school also has a trained Crisis Team. These teams have trained their school staff on how to recognize depression and self-harm. Team members have received thorough training on how to conduct threat assessments. In addition, all schools have comprehensive school safety plans in place that also help ensure safety.

“AUSD schools participate in approximately 20 lockdown drills each year and more than 80 fire drills.

“Many teachers and staff also receive First Aid/CPR, AED, EpiPen, and Search and Rescue training. There are also more than 500 online training courses in multiple languages that are available for all of the district’s staff.

“Safety is truly our top priority in Arcadia. It’s more than a cliché or canned statement. We recognize that learning is stifled if students and teachers are not in an environment in which they feel safe and secure. There are many state requirements that we must meet as a school district as far as how many drills you must do or what area of safety and preparedness you must train on. We often go well above the state requirements in many of these areas and have dedicated staff who spend their own time volunteering on committees, going to trainings, and doing whatever they can to make our students and staff as safe as possible,” Foran said in a written statement.

At the beginning of 2018, Education Week, a journal covering education in the U.S., began to track school shootings – and in that year recorded 24 incidents where there were deaths or injuries. With many parts of the U.S. having about 180 school days per year, it means, on average, a shooting once every eight school days.

Another database recording school shootings says 2018 had the highest number of incidents ever recorded, in figures going back to 1970.

That database, from the U.S. Center for Homeland Defense and Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), uses a different way of identifying gun incidents in school, and says this year there have been 30.

The deadliest school attack in U.S. history happened in 1927, when a man blew up a school in Bath Township, Mich., with hundreds of pounds of dynamite. Forty-five people died, including 38 children and the attacker himself. While hand guns were around in that era, they were nowhere near as abundant and easily accessible as today.

The National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies in February released two reports through the U.S. Department of Justice COPS Office – A Preliminary Report on the Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence Database by Jeffrey A. Daniels and A Comparison of Averted and Completed School Attacks from the Police Foundation Averted School Violence Database by Peter Langman and Frank Straub.

Some of the key findings include:

  • School shootings can be averted when parents, school authorities and students take seriously signals indicating potential violence from troubled youths, and communicate concerns as quickly as possible.
  • The reluctance to tell authorities or others their fears is a result of the “code of silence” that prevails among many young people who fear being called snitches. School authorities can dismantle students’ concerns by helping them make “a distinction between ‘snitching’” (which is reporting to get somebody in trouble) and reporting a concern (which is intended to help others).
  • Increased knowledge about mental health and the signs of psychological distress could have resulted in better intervention by parents, teachers and others. In addition, the stigma regarding mental health treatment has been a barrier that has kept people from getting help. Efforts to destigmatize mental health treatment should be a national priority, along with increasing available services and making sure they are accessible and affordable to all who need them.
  • Punishment is not prevention. When students are suspended and prohibited from being on school property and this is not communicated to school personnel, the students can return to the school, enter and commit acts of violence.