With so many recent shooting incidents, not the least impactful of which was the Dec. 14, 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., guns and school safety have been a major focus in school districts nationwide. Mammoth Lakes is no exception, and last Thursday evening, Mammoth Unified School District’s Board of Education held a discussion on the matter.
MUSD Superintendent Rich Boccia prefaced the agenda item by describing safety audits of all three campuses (high, middle and elementary schools) during the past few weeks, assessing both weaknesses and needs. Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Dan Watson led the briefings segment.
Watson lauded Boccia for using the events in Connecticut to frame the school safety discussion. He did mention the effect of recent cutbacks in the police force, due to the Town’s restructuring measures, saying the upside of the cuts is that the biggest reduction in force would occur late in the evenings and during the middle of the night, when school is not in session. The downside, however, is that the dedicated School Resource Officer position will be eliminated, but that SRO Andy Lehr would likely be able to devote at least some part-time hours to being on campus.
During daytime hours, Watson added that there would be five sworn officers who would be able to respond immediately in case of an emergency, including members of the Mono County Sheriff’s Office, Bishop Police Department and California Highway Patrol.
“Police tactics have changed since the 1994 Columbine shootings in Littleton, Colo.,” Watson posited. “The police there were criticized for not responding fast enough and not going into the campus sooner. If we’re notified of an active shooter on campus, we’d all respond, as would fire and paramedics, whether there were any wounded or not.”
For easier access, MLPD officers also now have master keys to all MUSD campuses.
The Chief said the MLPD would review the district’s safety plans and provide input as a consulting participant, but recognizes that MUSD is the Board’s jurisdiction when it comes to policy making.
This spring, while students are off on Spring Break, MLPD, CHP and Mono Sheriffs plan active shooter drills on campus, an exercise that hasn’t been conducted in the past three years. Increasing familiarity with the campuses’ rooms and overall layout, the Chief said, would be one benefit of such drills. That said, his concerns are that the campuses are largely open to daily traffic, though he does not recommend securing them like compounds, a view shared by Boccia, who previously has expressed similar thoughts. “Secure the exterior so you can free up interior doors,” Boccia suggested. “There’s nothing worse than seeing all classroom doors on lockdown.”
“Newtown’s school district had a safety plan, and had practiced it recently,” Watson pointed out. “The police and first responders did an excellent job, and there were still 27 dead.” Even though California has the nation’s strictest gun laws, he said the gun debate currently being waged is “healthy.”
Some of what was revealed in the safety audits, according to MUSD Director of Operations, Maintenance and Transportation Robin Davis, went to the human factor in the equation. “Right after Newtown, the staff here had a heightened sense of awareness,” he said. “A couple of weeks later, people started to get comfortable again and we found doors not properly latched, that sort of thing. We need to get staff to rethink what ‘normal’ is.” How does he see MUSD improve? “Make people more sensitive to comings and goings, and that should include public and sports events. Mammoth is safe as long as we’re paying attention to and watching what’s going on.”
Views from the principals’ chairs also yielded mentioned areas that could use work. Elementary School Principal Rosanne Lampariello, who is currently reviewing MES’ entire emergency preparedness plan, opined that in Mammoth, “Everything’s open, from homes to classrooms. When it comes to visitors, we have to change our mindsets. They have to go through the office.” Mental health, she added, is a “huge issue” MES takes seriously, referring kids in need to the new North Star Counseling Center.
Mono County Office of Education Superintendent Stacey Adler spoke in detail about Northstar’s role in school safety. Northstar tracks kids from when it receives a referral from the principal to when the child can be returned to school. She suggested such counseling could possibly be used in lieu of suspension, to further keep kids from falling through the cracks.
At the Middle School, Principal Annie Rinaldi reported the school has had two safety meetings and is fine-tuning its emergency plan, including lockdown drills, which she said have been well practiced. “Communication with students is number one, so threats can be reported,” she said.
High School Principal Gabe Solorio took Lampariello’s point, saying he’s found a few doors that have been open, and that front access to the school, both through the main office, as well as the library and multi-purpose room would be considered as part of the school’s planning.
Robin Roberts, Director of Mono County Behavioral Health, said “With positive relationships, kids, no matter how weird or strange they might seem, grow up to be normal, functioning adults,” she indicated. She did, however, say we could ID kids who are in crisis. “We are the crisis team for the county, and we’re really good at sorting out kids so they don’t go through the cracks. We have programs that help fortify the community. We’re small, but we’re very talented and we really care.”
Board looks at proactive ideas
While Board and public comments were sparse, BOE member John Stavlo said he would like the district’s final plan to include some attempt at prevention. “Emergency preparedness plans are for events that have happened,” he said. “Walking into schools is basically on the honor system. How do we want to control it? Do we want to control it? Some teachers follow lockdown, some don’t. Are we going to enforce it and hold teachers accountable?”
Parent Connie Moyer said she attended the Middle School’s safety meeting, and was impressed. “A school should be a safe place, but safety also means emotionally, and from earthquakes as well as shootings,” she opined. Moyer also expressed disappointment with the loss of the School Resource Officer, and lamented the Town’s choosing budget over safety.
She further thought that addressing school safety should also include renewed enforcement of the district’s zero tolerance policy on alcohol, drugs and tobacco, advocating random dog sniffing. Boccia said dog searches have been conducted in the past and could be done on lockers and so on while students are in classes without disrupting the education process.
A district safety plan draft is due Feb. 18, and will be put before the Board for its consideration during its Feb 21 meeting. A public hearing on adoption of the plan is currently set for Feb. 28.