One year after Parkland, Florida school shooting, Sonoma County schools increase security

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Nearly one year ago, Caroline Duffy marched out of Santa Rosa High School alongside hundreds of her peers as part of a national school walkout demanding an end to gun violence.

Cars driving along Mendocino Avenue honked in support as they passed. She felt empowered, but the audacity of the moment struck her.

“It angered me that I even have to think about this,” said Duffy, 17. “They don’t want to be remembered like this, those students that were lost.”

Duffy thought of the 14 students and three staff members killed 3,000 miles away at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018, by a former student armed with an AR-15 style semiautomatic weapon. The shooting, which lasted less than seven minutes, ignited a national, student-led movement for gun safety legislation and prompted school districts nationwide, including in Sonoma County, to re-evaluate safety plans and procedures.

The issue now pervades campus life for students of all ages, a source of anxiety — and anger — that has shaped a generation of American youth.

In the year since the Parkland shooting, some local school districts have secured classroom doors with so-called Columbine locks — devices that can lock from the inside of a classroom, named after the Colorado high school that became an indelible euphemism for school shootings two decades ago.

Sonoma County schools have increased participation in active shooter training programs, encouraged students to report potential safety threats on a cellphone app and invited law enforcement to conduct safety audits at school sites.

At a training session hosted by the county last summer, hundreds of school employees were even taught how to apply pressure to a wound and use a tourniquet in case of an active shooter situation.

And some districts learned of safety flaws at schools — particularly communication with students and families during an emergency — only after potential threats in the last year revealed them.

All the while, young people took to social media, organized rallies, participated in school walkouts, dealt with copycat threats scrawled on bathroom walls at local schools, wrote to their legislators and made it known that they want the carnage to end within their lifetimes.

“I think it changed me in terms of my awareness of politics in general and how I think about school safety, but I think that like a lot of students, the shooting coincided with the natural formation of my own opinions,” Duffy said.

Sam Hegardt, a 17-year-old senior at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, said the possibility of a school shooting still remains on his mind. A mere three months after Parkland, eight students and two teachers were fatally shot at Santa Fe High School in Texas.

“In a way, school shootings have been scarred into my brain. I feel like I think about it a lot more often than before the beginning of last year,” said Hegardt, who attended the March for Our Lives rally on March 24 with thousands of others at Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, one of over 800 protests held that day around the world.

Parkland is the deadliest mass shooting at an American high school, surpassing the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, where two students killed 12 of their classmates and one teacher before turning their guns on themselves.

Some students did speak out after Columbine, including Robyn Anderson, a friend of the shooters who bought three of the firearms used in the attack. At the time, she was 18 and the shooters were 17. She was interviewed by national media outlets and testified to Colorado legislators that she wouldn’t have bought the guns if there had been a background check.

“It was too easy. I wish it had been more difficult,” Anderson testified in 2000.

While Columbine remained in the national consciousness for years, it never sparked a large-scale, student-led movement for gun control the way Parkland did.

Local students say that’s partly because of the emergence of social media since Columbine — student footage of the Parkland shooting was posted on Snapchat in real time — and the increasing regularity of mass shootings.

“In the worst way possible, we got used to these shootings. It became routine, and I think that’s what prompted me to go to this march. I thought that no one should expect or get used to something so horrible. This should be something we’re upset about,” Hegardt said.

New locks installed

For Sonoma County schools, keeping students safe in a country where mass shootings have become more deadly takes time, effort and money.

“The first level of reaction is tragedy and sympathy. As those emotions start to settle, you start to worry about what’s happening in your own backyard,” said Dave Rose, Petaluma City Schools assistant superintendent of student services. “It’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen, so we need to be preventative.”

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district with about 16,000 students, has recently spent at least $2.5 million out of facility bonds to buy and install Columbine locks that can be locked from the inside and outside of the classroom.

“I think the locks would be a good addition and make the parents and students feel like they have some control,” Duffy said.

The first of the locks were installed a couple of weeks ago, and the district aims to have the locks put on all external doors at all its school sites before this summer, said Rick Edson, assistant superintendent of business services.

Before the safety locks were purchased, about 30 percent of doors in the district had them.

“Every day we talk about school safety. It’s extremely important,” Edson said.

In the Cotati-Rohnert Park district, about 33 percent of classrooms have door locks that close from the inside, Assistant Superintendent Julie Synyard said. The district also secured money last month from a Department of Justice grant for its first school resource officer.

The Department of Education does not fund school resource officers, but the Santa Rosa district has one stationed at each of its high schools.

Training increased

Additionally, Santa Rosa City Schools held its first active shooter training session with multiple law enforcement and fire agencies over the course of three days last summer at Piner High School.

“I would definitely like to see that happen more frequently because it helps us get familiar with the campuses we may have to respond to,” Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jeneane Kucker said. “We try to train as much as possible.”

Between 2000 to 2017, about 1 in 5 active shooter incidents in the U.S. took place at a school, according to an analysis by the FBI of 250 mass shootings in that timespan.

After Columbine, Santa Rosa police were trained to stop the shooter before helping victims, Kucker said. The agency trains its officers to run toward the threat and not wait for backup, which sheriff’s deputies in the Parkland shooting were widely criticized for not doing.

Countywide, the Parkland shooting spurred a demand from school staffers — including secretaries, bus drivers and janitors — for training to better prevent or prepare for a school shooting. The demand resulted in a first school safety training day for nearly 300 school employees hosted in August by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Sonoma County Office of Education.

St. Joseph Memorial Hospital staff taught attendees how to put pressure on a bleeding wound and the proper use of a tourniquet as part of the Stop the Bleed campaign. The program was created by the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 first-graders and six staff members were shot and killed.

The medical program was the most popular part of the training day, Sonoma County schools Superintendent Steve Herrington said.

Duffy said she hopes that shootings won’t become so ingrained in American life that children must be taught how to stop a student from bleeding to death.

“I would say that’s a sad reality,” Duffy said.

Active shooter drills

Another way schools prepared is through active shooter drills. The Petaluma school district has its students practice drills once or twice a year. The drills can take different formats, but typically involves locking the classroom door, turning off the lights, shutting the windows, reducing visibility from a potential shooter and turning off electronic devices.

“If we start to do that more often it becomes traumatic for students,” Rose said.

It’s become common within the last decade for children in Sonoma County as young as 2 years old to participate in active shooter drills at their respective day care centers or preschools. It’s a heavy topic for little ones and teachers plan developmentally appropriate ways to explain the drill, said Susy Marron, coordinator of the Child Care Planning Council at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

“Teachers often make drills fun while communicating the importance of the drill in terms of everyone’s safety,” Marron wrote in an email.

Ed Sheffield, board trustee at Santa Rosa City Schools, recalled when his son came home from kindergarten at Proctor Terrace Elementary School one day last year and talked about practicing quiet time in the dark, under his desk.

“We were trying to figure out what is he talking about?” Sheffield said. “As a parent, it’s really hard. Unfortunately, it’s the world we live in.”

Schools have also looked at centralizing access on campus to a single point of entry, which has been done at school sites in the Rincon Valley Union School District over the last couple of years, board member Jeff Gospe said.

Many local school districts are still in the process of completing annual comprehensive school safety plans by March 1, as required by the state. The plans must include an assessment of juvenile crime data, emergency procedures for relocation and evacuation, procedures for a public agency like the American Red Cross to use school grounds, expulsion and suspension policies and hate crime reporting procedures, among other things.

Schools are also encouraged by the state to include anti-bullying policies and mental health guidelines in the plan.

“In this era of shootings like Columbine, Parkland and Sandy Hook, it’s obviously a big concern,” Gospe said about safety plans.

Security flaws at schools

While some districts emphasized additional preparation and training after Parkland, other schools have had firsthand experiences within the last year that shed light on security flaws.

Northwest Prep Charter School was put on a brief lockdown the afternoon of Dec. 7 while sheriff’s deputies searched the area after receiving a report from nearby vineyard workers of a woman yelling for help and a man with a hand under his shirt possibly holding a handgun, Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

The suspect was never found and the lockdown was quickly lifted. Nonetheless, Principal Kim Kern said it was a learning experience for the campus to improve communications with other agencies and train with students and staff more frequently and earlier in the school year.

“Because this lockdown occurred at the end of the school day, we also learned that we need to make sure that all of our parents understand and know our safety plans and procedures, too,” Kern wrote in an email.

It’s a lesson recently learned by Santa Rosa Junior College, where a professor received a false report of a gunman on campus at Analy Hall on Jan. 17. It forced an evacuation of the building and adjacent Santa Rosa High School was placed on lockdown while campus police conducted a search in and around Analy Hall.

The incident shed light on holes in the college’s campus alert system, which some criticized for not reaching enough people in texts or emails and providing little information on its main phone line or website. A new system will be implemented to broadcast messages across the district through its phone systems, SRJC President Frank Chong said.

Electronic locks that can be remotely locked by campus police will be put on exterior doors, and manual locks that can be locked from the inside will be put on interior doors. All of the locks have been ordered, and the manual locks will be installed in Emeritus Hall by April 30, Chong said.

A safety committee comprised of students, faculty and other staff members has been formed since the incident to review emergency response and safety policies.

“The safety committee gives them an opportunity to weigh in and also hold the administration accountable for following up,” Chong said.

‘Lack of leadership’

Less than a week after the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump tweeted his support for arming teachers with guns in schools. Herrington, who served in the military and was trained to shoot an M16 rifle, said arming teachers isn’t part of the solution.

“We need to leave protection to those that are trained to protect,” said Herrington, the Sonoma County schools superintendent.

Chong, who worked for the U.S. Department of Education shaping the community college agenda in the Obama administration, agreed with Herrington that teachers should not be armed.

“We have a lack of leadership at the federal level to help us really resolve this issue,” Chong said. “So I think we have to empower ourselves to protect ourselves.”

In December, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released the Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, a 177-page report that outlined recommendations to prevent school shootings as a response to the Parkland shooting.

Her report supports emotional and social learning, mental health services, developing a community of connectedness, encouraging students to report threats and scrapping an Obama-era recommendation to reduce suspensions among minority students.

It was criticized by Tom Torlakson, the California superintendent of schools at the time, for ignoring gun control.

Aalayah Eastmond, a 17-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, testified Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee’s first hearing on gun violence prevention in nearly a decade.

Eastmond pleaded for Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, and described being in her fourth-period Holocaust class when the shooting happened. She had just given a presentation with her classmate, Nicholas Dworet, when the shooting began. Dworet was shot and killed in front of her. Eastmond mimicked his final movements and hid under his body, certain she would die.

“Many, like me, were fortunate enough to walk away with our lives, but we will never be free from the terror. Some will carry visible scars, but all of us were scarred emotionally for the rest of our lives,” Eastmond said in her testimony.

Empowered by Parkland

Parkland student activists like Eastmond, David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez have empowered other young people, local students say.

“We have a greater hill to climb because of the deep pit we’ve dug, but I have to believe that we’ll get out,” Duffy said.

Katerina Lim, a 17-year-old senior at Maria Carrillo who helped organize her school’s Martin Luther King Jr. assembly this year with the theme of overcoming hate with love, went to the March for Our Lives and said she has hope that school shootings will end within her lifetime.

The Parkland shooting struck her “very intensely,” she said.

“Our generation is becoming more involved politically. We want our voices heard,” Lim said. “We need more gun regulations before owning guns. We need more mental health checkups. I believe that there are activists in this world that will fight for this change. We won’t be quiet.”

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