Schools prepare for the worst

Districts use safety plans, drills, staff training, add officers

Officers perform a drill at Sunnyslope Elementary School in Hollister in this file photo.

Four years ago, students, staff and faculty within the Gilroy Unified School District collaborated with more than 15 law enforcement agencies to help produce a “Run, Hide, Defend” training video.

Since then, just about every school district throughout Santa Clara County has shown the CMAP-produced training video to provide school communities with the best possible tactics and procedures to follow if there is an active shooter at a school.

Santa Clara County Police Chiefs’ Association used funds from the state Homeland Security Grant Program to finance the video, which casted Gilroy students in an active-shooter-on-campus dramatization and informed viewers of the appropriate actions to take in such a case.

“We’ve been taking this serious for a long time and do everything we can possibly do to prepare for the unlikely event of a school shooting in Gilroy,” said Gilroy Supt. Debbie Flores, who also offers up the school campuses to Gilroy police officers to carry out their own live-training drills when school is out. “It is the top priority in this district to make sure our students are safe and that we’ve done everything to make sure they are safe.”

In preparing for the worst case scenario—one that no school employee hopes to ever encounter but must be prepared for—area school districts such as those in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister have long-established, state-mandated, comprehensive school safety plans that are revisited on an annual basis with assistance from local police, sheriff, fire and other emergency response agencies.

“Anytime we have an incident, whether it be local or a national type like in Florida, we have a sit-down to take a look at what the initial findings were and look at our procedures to see are there any gaps based on that,” said San Benito High School Principal Adrian Ramirez, who conducts an active shooter drill each semester on his campus so staff and students are equipped to handle such a situation.

“Unfortunately, each of these incidents gives you some sort of insight into different behavior and tactics being used. We always have to make sure we’re on top of everything,” he said.

On Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla., a single-shooter entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 students, injuring many more, in one of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings. Shortly after, police officers arrested 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, a former student who had been expelled from the high school. Cruz, who is alleged to have used a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, has since been charged with multiple counts of murder.
“For any school to think that something like that could not possibly happen on their campus is being naive,” Ramirez added.

Immediately after the Parkland tragedy, State Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson sent “thoughts and prayers to the families of those killed and wounded in this horrible mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School” and also reminded school districts to update their school safety plans.

In Morgan Hill, one day after the Florida shooting, Supt. Steve Betando, along with Morgan Hill Unified principals, met with School Resource Officer Jeff Brandon of the Morgan HIll Police Department to debrief on the latest mass shooting.

“We discussed the circumstances about the Parkland incident known to us at that time,” said Betando, who sent out a letter to Morgan Hill families notifying them of the extensive measures taken to assure student safety at local schools. “The group discussed our safety protocols, the site plans and the intruder response training that was put in place in 2014.”

San Benito High School District Supt. Shawn Tennenbaum described the high school’s safety plan as a “work in progress” since they are “continually making upgrades and incorporating best practices.”

“Unfortunately, the most recent tragedy in Florida, it heightens the alarm bell. [School shootings] are more frequent now than ever in our country, more devastating,” Tennenbaum said. “Our utmost charge as a school district is to ensure a safe environment for not only our students but our staff as well.”

School resource officers and juvenile detectives joined teachers, administrators and counselors at a four-hour workshop on “School Violence and the Active Shooter” at the Gilroy Police Department this week.

The March 5 training session for 60 people from throughout the Bay Area was presented by the Public Safety Training Institute and paid for by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The attendees included representatives from Gilroy Unified School District, San Benito High School, San Juan Bautista Unified School District, Morgan Hill Unified School District, and the Gilroy, Hollister and Morgan Hill police departments.

“This is a tough topic, but we have to talk about it,” said Mike Elerick, who led the session.

The classroom workshop discussed best practices, identifying behaviors, reporting procedures and security systems.

The most important thing for schools is “they need a plan in place to make sure they have a single point of contact for parents, students and staff—from janitors to teachers,” said Elerick.

He said he has conducted about 40 “active shooter” workshops in California since the program began three years ago.

Many school districts, like those in Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister, employ school resource officers who are assigned to one or more campuses and are another line of defense in the case of emergency.

“We have a great collaboration with the Hollister Police Department,” Tennenbaum said. “Our school resource officer is invaluable.”

Officer Juan Guevara, with the Hollister Police Department, has been the resource officer for San Benito High School for more than two years. Guevara is one of three Hollister police officers (the other two are assigned to middle and elementary schools) working in partnership with San Benito schools to help ensure a safe school environment. Morgan Hill has one resource officer, while Gilroy employs two resource officers at each of its high schools who are also in charge of their respective feeder schools.

Through the partnership between police and schools, Guevara said they have established a uniform response among the many sites for emergency situations.

“The responsibility of the resource officer is to be on campus, assist the schools, evaluate any suspicious activity that may be going on, patrol the area and just show a strong presence that you are there,” said Guevara. He parks his squad car in the front of the high school, like most resource officers assigned to schools, so “anyone who drives by can see me there.”

Officer Jeff Brandon is in his fourth year as the resource officer in Morgan Hill, dividing most of his time between Live Oak and Ann Sobrato High Schools. He is also assigned to Britton and Martin Murphy Middle Schools, and Central Continuation School. Brandon said he’s built invaluable relationships with both staff and students over his tenure that have helped in his job of making safer schools.

“A lot of students seek me out to discuss problems they may be having. They know they can report things to me and come to me if they have any personal issues that they don’t want to follow them later on in life,” Brandon said.

Brandon and Guevara said they haven’t received any threats at their respective school districts in any form since the Florida mass shooting. “If anything there’s been a heightened awareness of security,” Brandon noted.

Local school districts installed multiple security measures at their schools to ensure safety long before the Parkland shooting. In Gilroy, along with active shooter training for staff and bi-annual “code red” drills, some of those practices include school safe locks installed at the middle and high schools, perimeter fences and single point of entry for all school sites.

“Anytime a major school shooting occurs, we take a look at our safety plan again and ask ourselves, ‘Is there anything more we can do to assure our schools are safe as possible?’” said Flores, who was set to meet this week with district administrators and local law enforcement to go over their plan with insights from the Florida shooting.

At Morgan Hill Unified, which includes Morgan Hill, San Martin and South San Jose, Betando notified parents and families of the “Five Powerful Strategy Fields to Improve Student Safety of Campus,” which are Prevention, Policy, Protocol, Practice and Public Information. The Morgan Hill school board adopted a resolution March 6 calling for stricter gun laws.

“We have made a commitment to making school safety the first priority and worked hard over the past four years to make improvements in our school safety and security,” Betando said. “We won’t stop improving.”