School leaders and police detail efforts to keep schools safe

School leaders and police detail efforts to keep schools safe

Michele Ellson

Alameda Police Chief Mike Noonan and a top schools official said they’re prepared to respond to an armed campus assault like the Connecticut massacre that reportedly left 27 dead, including 20 children.

“We do have kids’ safety at heart, and we want parents to know we don’t take this lightly,” Alameda Unified’s chief business officer, Robert Shemwell, said Friday.

But some of the district's schools haven't been uniformly implementing efforts to limit points of entry, and at least one potential safety measure – locks that can be turned from inside classrooms, instead of outside – is lacking.

State law requires school districts to draft school safety plans that lay out how schools leaders will handle everything from power outages and earthquakes to an armed intruder on campus, and Shemwell said the district has the plans, along with a district-wide emergency plan, in place.

District leaders meet with police officials every month to coordinate the plans, he said, “so we’re constantly in contact with one another, advising each other of new areas for improvement.” And Shemwell said they’re working to convene a broader group around school safety issues in quarterly meetings to begin in January.

Officials with the San Francisco Unified School District on Friday posted a link to their plans on Twitter. San Francisco’s district-wide emergency operations plan, for instance, lists procedures that include calling 911 and securing students until police arrive.

Shemwell said Alameda’s schools also perform multiple lockdown drills in classrooms each year to ensure that students know what to do if there’s an intruder on campus – a message Superintendent Kirsten Vital delivered to parents via recorded telephone message Friday night.

“Our staff is trained and well-prepared to deal with safety, security and student needs,” Vital said in the message. She said the district does regular lockdown and evacuation drills every year and urged parents to ask principals about their schools’ safety plans.

Noonan said Alameda police have done a number of trainings with the school district focused on “active shooter scenarios,” including an all-day 2011 training at Alameda High School that included police, firefighters and students. The training focused on emergency response, lockdown procedures, student evacuation and release of students to parents, according to a press release issued by the district.

“We do a good amount of training, and we’re prepared to respond. I hope to God we never have to,” said Noonan, who added that police training for school shootings has changed “a lot” over the years “because these things happen too often.”

One of Alameda’s officers, Hank Morten, develops training for handling such incidents both for Alameda’s schools and others across Alameda County, Noonan said.

The department has a manual for handling school incidents that’s updated annually, which includes blueprints of all of Alameda’s schools and emergency contacts, Noonan said. Shemwell said the department has placed school resource officers at Alameda’s high schools.

Nearby, Oakland Unified is one of a handful of school districts in California with its own police force, spokesman Troy Flint wrote in a message posted to the district’s website Friday that outlined measures its leaders have taken to keep students safe.

But Alameda’s schools do face some safety challenges. Shemwell said district officials want schools to maintain a single, central point of entry for security purposes, but some of the district’s schools, which were all built in different eras with different considerations in mind, can be accessed from multiple entry points.

“Some campuses are more open that other campuses,” said Shemwell, who noted that newer schools are designed with single entry points to keep students safer.

A state law enacted in 2010 requires newly built schools to include locks that automatically lock classroom doors from the inside, something Alameda’s schools - at least some of which have classroom doors that lock from the outside - don’t have. Shemwell said district officials are looking at a new locking system, though nothing has been presented publicly. A 2011 bill sponsored by the California Federation of Teachers sought to require the locks to be installed as part of any school modernization project, but the bill – which was opposed by the California School Boards Association, an advocacy group for school board members, as being too costly – stalled in an Assembly committee.

Even without the legislation, some districts are installing the locks, known as “Columbine locks” after the 1999 school shooting in Colorado that prompted a wave of effort aimed at protecting students from similar assaults. In 2008, the San Mateo Unified School District installed the locks in a half dozen Peninsula high schools at a cost of $263,095, the San Francisco Examiner reported.

Shemwell said the Connecticut killings could mean new legislation intended to make schools more secure, and he expects the school board and the community will want to talk about what they may want to do to make Alameda’s schools safer.

“When you have an incident of this tragic nature, it brings the conversations up to the surface again,” Shemwell said. “I’m sure there will be discussions on it.”

Shemwell said that any security effort would be limited in the protection it could provide; according to reports, the school where the attack took place had recently implemented a security system that included locking the school’s exterior doors after 9:30 a.m. Noonan questioned whether parents would want additional police on school campuses.

Shemwell and Noonan said that perhaps one of the best methods of preventing a similar tragedy here is for students or others who may have information that something’s being planned to contact police, a teacher or a school administrator.

“If somebody sees something or hears something, tell somebody,” Noonan said. “You’re not wasting the police department’s time, you’re not wasting the school’s time. Usually when someone’s gut is telling them something, their gut is probably right.”