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School safety top priority for local schools
Less than a month following the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., another school shooting — this one close to home — has local superintendents determined to do all in their power to prevent such an incident from occurring at local districts.
“It is so disheartening to hear a California school has been involved in another horrific violent act,” said Gary Mekeel, Burton School District superintendent. “It makes me wonder if there is a real way to protect our children from the danger of something like this happening in our district.”
At Porterville Unified School District’s offices, phones rang continuously Thursday morning following breaking news of a shooting at a California rural high school. At the time, there was no other information online. It wasn’t until a few minutes later, that Taft Union High School — located 83 miles southwest of Porterville — was identified as the site of the shooting.
“We began getting calls almost immediately, before information became available online, the calls were coming in,” said Val Staley, Assistant Superintendent PUSD. “We immediately made contact with our police department — that’s one area we have great strength, the relationship we have with our local police.”
Fortunately, both districts have been proactive and have been working on school safety.
At the Burton School District, its cabinet level has been meeting with district trustees to review the schools’ safety procedures, including lockdowns. The safety policies are also getting reviewed at each of the district’s nine schools.
In addition, Mekeel said, an architecture firm is visiting each one of the district’s school sites, looking over the schools’ point of entries into different buildings and offices.
“Right now, unless someone climbs the tall fence, all visitors must go through the office. If students are on campus, all outside gates are locked. The only entrance to the school at all nine sites is through the office,” Mekeel said. “The architect firm is looking at every entry point at each property and suggest how we are able to further secure by providing a separating area with an electronic opening to each site. We will review the recommendations with the intent to have a presentation to the board.”
The Burton School District is also starting a pilot program in February at two schools — Jim Maples Academy and Burton Elementary — that Mekeel said, if successful, he hopes will be implemented at all the schools shortly after.
The program requires all staff at both schools, from classified to certified, wear an electronic device — a panic button with two buttons to prevent accidental discharge. The device can be worn around the neck or on a belt.
“If the alarm is pressed, three things happen simultaneously. No. 1, a direct message is dispatched to the police department so that they can send their first responders or SWAT team. Second, a siren on the roof of the building at the school site will be heard. This will be audible anywhere on campus, signaling the implementation of immediate lock down and the removal of children away from that building. And third, our district office will be notified.”
The proposal to the board will be in February, Mekeel said, with implementation expected by the end of February. The systems are also well within the district’s affordable means, he said.
“As far as the architect designs, we’ll have to wait and see what the variation on costs to the sites will be,” Mekeel said.
In the meantime, everyone has heightened responsibility, being diligent on campus at every entry, having adults in key positions, watching for safety issues and looking for anything out of the ordinary, Mekeel said.
“We have asked our management team to reflect on the fact that this event in Taft was by a student on campus, and how this would have been prevented and/or handled given our current safety procedures,” said Sharon Kamberg, deputy superintendent for the Burton School District.
There is no such thing as being too careful.
“I don’t think any campus is exempt, so we’ll do whatever we can and we are prepared to do every extreme to make our schools a safe place,” Mekeel said.
The same is true for PUSD, administrators said.
“Every time there is an incident such as today’s, it encourages us to pay close attention to our plans,” said Assistant Superintendent Val Staley.
But in addition to having reviews of safety plans, which are reviewed frequently, PUSD has a program that begins next week.
“On Tuesday, every principal and every director will meet with the police department in the board room to review safety,” Staley said. “And between now and the end of February, everyone of the sites will have a presentation and training with the police department, working in unison to make sure every site is safe.”
Because every site is unique with a different layout, each site will be individually examined.
The sites are also working with police to make sure each site’s lockdown procedures are effective. And every principal from each campus is forwarding information to the district as to what they believe are safety concerns.
Most of Porterville Unified and all of Burton's high schools are closed campuses — students are not permitted off campus during school hours.
“No one expects to send their student to school and find they are injured,” said Ken Gibbs, PUSD assistant superintendent. “That’s why we’re doing this. We want to do everything we can to keep our kids safe.”
But no matter how much is done, one can never be fully prepared, said Kamberg.
“There isn’t a way to be fully prepared for every event that may happen, however, we are always in conversation with our management team regarding the procedures we currently have in place and how we can improve,” Kamberg said. “Such will be the case following this most recent tragedy. The Burton families can be confident that conversations with our management team will continue to focus on how to make sure our students have a safe place to come to school and students feel safe while at school.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson also issued a statement Thursday on the Taft High School shooting:
“Our hearts go out to the family and the student who was critically injured today at Taft High School, as well as to the entire school community. I commend the heroic actions of the classroom teacher and the campus supervisor who risked their safety to protect students, no doubt saving lives in the process. I am also grateful for the swift arrival of police and their arrest of the suspect,” he said. “Our schools must be safe places for students, and today’s events remind us we have work to do, as a state and as a nation, to reach that goal.”
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.