Looking at how Westside schools are preparing for worst-case scenarios.
By Keldine Hull
It’s been a year since 19- year old Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, taking the lives of 17 students and staff members and contributing to the highest rate of school shooting incidents since 1970. According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS), there were 82 school shooting incidents last year in the United States alone that resulted in 51 fatalities. It’s a new normal that has forced many, including local school administrators, to consider and reexamine what they would do in an active shooter situation.
Santa Monica High School staff began training in active shooter scenarios two years ago. According to Santa Monica High School Principal Antonio M. Shelton, “Our district has developed age-appropriate discussion topics for all grade levels. Each homeroom teacher has had discussions with their student as to scenarios and procedures. We have updated our lockdown procedures to reflect current lessons learned. Our PTSA has provided all classrooms with lockdown door window shades. Santa Monica High School is participating in a pilot electronic door locking system to be installed this summer. We have added a visitor badging system to our front gate check-in.”
Shelton adds, “Each and every time we have a drill or an alarm is activated, we learn from the incident and improve our procedures. Each year we fundraise to increase our emergency safety supplies. We work closely with both the Santa Monica Police and Fire Departments- both do training on our campus.”
Some schools on the Westside- including Crossroads School, Westside Neighborhood School, and Archer School For Girls- rely on outside experts to prepare staff and students for any type of emergency.
Based in Santa Monica, Joffee Emergency Services is an all-hazards emergency preparedness, crisis response and crisis recovery firm that provides proactive training and readiness as it relates to emergencies, including the threat of an active shooter. They support nearly 1,000 schools in North America with 25 schools and 15 organizations and municipalities on the Westside.
According to Joffee Emergency Services Founder and CEO Chris Joffee, involvement and training make up the greatest defense against threats of violence.
“There’s a lot of technology, resources and consultants that have come into the state in the last six or seven years, even more in the last year since Parkland. What we find is that creating a community of connection through schools where we actually know students, schools where we invest the time in getting to know families, schools where we create real, meaningful and quantifiable relationships with students, families, staff – those are the necessary steps to detect threats well in advance.” Joffee explains, “If the first order of business is to create a community of connection, then the second is to develop and practice consistently a threat assessment team.
According to Joffee, the threat assessment team is a group of administrators and external experts that come together and review anytime there’s a threat against the school or any community member within it. Joffe suggests that a threat assessment team should be comprised of a counselor and nurse from the school, division directors or principals, a police officer and director of security.
Involvement within the community and in each student’s life helps to address a potentially harmful situation before it has the chance to escalate.
“We often talk about the fact that a school should be responding to multiple threats a year, and it’s not always that there’s an active shooter or weapon on campus or something like that. Often times there’s a divorce in the family, or there’s a kid who failed a test for the first time. How can we increase the level of support that we’re providing to that student, check in and make sure that student is okay?” Joffee said. “What’s inspiring to me is if we have a culture of connectivity and we have a threat assessment team in place, when somebody is or perceived that they’re wronged, we should be able to detect that. And once we detect that, we can start to apply some focus and some support. Before the act of violence occurs, if we can identify them as a concern, then we can care for them and provide the empathy and compassion that they need and prevent the event from ever occurring. I find hope in the fact that typically there’s a catalyst that can be traced back, and if we are actively looking for that catalyst, then we can prevent the event.”
In addition to detecting threats, Joffe Emergency Servies invests a majority of time in schools on training and preparedness.
“We train schools on lockdown procedures and active shooter response protocol, develop communication infrastructure so that they can effectively reach everybody on campus within 30 seconds or less from the event that occurred. And then we practice all those things,” Joffe said. “The best protocol doesn’t do you any good unless everybody actually knows how to follow it, and so we teach the students, teachers, parents what to do when an emergency actually does occur on campus.”
For grades K- 8, the best defense in the event of an active shooter is to lockdown.
“Get into a classroom or an office or a space on campus, close and lock the door, turn off the lights, close the blinds, get low to the ground, and silence your cell phone and stay entirely silent in that space.” Joffe said. “It’s really, really difficult because people feel vulnerable when they’re in that position, but it is a truly effective strategy. If we can create a completely silent ghost town, then the shooter loses the ability to focus in on a group and that gives the police time to prepare to handle the situation.”
Joffe advises a slightly different strategy for colleges and universities.
“You want to run as far and as fast from the shooter or where you think the shooter might be. If you can’t run, then you hide, and hide ideally in that same lockdown position. And last but not least, if you’re ever confronted by someone attempting to do bodily harm, then you fight and do so with every ounce of willpower you have,” Joffe said.