As legislators in Sacramento and around the country work to prevent school shootings and protect students from active shooters, Southern California school police officers daily worry about that problem — and many other potential threats to student safety.
The officers and deputies assigned to schools, called School Resource Officers or SROs, are tasked with generally keeping order, breaking up fights and dealing with problems like drug dealing, gang activity and bullying. The officers work to prevent students from bringing guns and other weapons to campus — and sometimes arrest those who do.
SROs say a key to success is to connect with the students and develop trust. Their jobs aren’t always focused on traditional law enforcement.
“Sometimes I’ll play handball with the kids so they can get to know me,” said Los Angeles School Police Department Officer Daniel Banales, who is assigned San Fernando Senior High School, where he went to school and where his math teacher is still on staff.
“You get to know certain kids who have issues at home, and the principal will call me to ask to talk to the kids, but not in any sort of criminal way. Sometimes kids don’t have a positive male figure in their life, and sometimes it’s up to us to play the role,” he said.
School shooting threats
Banales and other SROs said mentoring is one of the key components of their jobs, but as law enforcement officers they must keep an eye on any potential threats toward their schools, including those made over social media.
Such threats — and actual shootings — are now part of most school safety discussions after the nation was first shocked by Columbine 20 years ago (13 killed) and then witnessed scores of horrific shootings notably at Sandy Hook (26 killed in 2012) and Parkland (17 killed last year). On Tuesday, one student died and eight more were injured in a school shooting in Highlands Ranch, Colo., near Denver. Locally, a teacher and a student were killed at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino in 2017.
A survey conducted last summer of 505 U.S high school principals found 92% had faced problems at their schools related to the threat of gun violence. UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access surveyed the educators and analyzed the results.
“Not only must they respond to threats on social media or incidents that require investigation and follow up, almost all principals report talking with students in an effort to reduce concerns and working to connect students with counseling or other services,” John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and the director of the institute, said of the study in a column in EdSource.
Florida legislators, responding to Parkland, this month approved a bill allowing more teachers to carry guns on campus. It expands an existing school “guardian” program to allow any teacher to volunteer to carry a weapon with school district approval.
Arming teachers isn’t something that’s on the table in California.
“I think people advocating for arming teachers haven’t thought about what will happen during a shooting situation,” said Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz.
“My preference is to have school resource officers on campuses,” said San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon. “Primarily because of their ability to gain information. That’s someone who is highly trained who can stop a deadly threat since they’re on campus. There are people less trained who would be put in a position they aren’t ready for.”
California legislators, however, have been working on other measures to protect students from shooters.
Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona) authored AB 1747, which expanded the required elements of school safety plans mandated by the California Department of Education to include procedures to respond to active shooter situations.
That bill was signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018.
“North Park’s school shooting was close to home so I started thinking about if our schools and school districts have active shooter response drills, like what they have for fires and earthquakes” Rodriguez said. “My bill makes school districts have plans to work with local law enforcement to come up with the best way to respond to those incidents.”
Rodriguez said he requested audits from several school districts and that showed that some schools had response plans, and some did not.
Brown also signed Assembly Bill 3205, authored by Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), which requires any school modernization project done through the state’s school facility bond program to include adding doors to classrooms that can be locked from the inside.
“This bill will protect students and teachers in the event of an immediate threat on a school campus,” said O’Donnell.
This year, legislators are considering Senate Bill 86, which would require lockdown or “multioption response drills” at schools to be conducted in an age-appropriate manner. Multioption drills are “where individuals evacuate the area, create barricades, and in last resort situations, actively resist a person using a firearm or other type of weapon,” the bill says.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) said he authored SB-86 because he’s the father of a high school student.
“High school safety is something all parents think about every day,” Portantino said. “Those thoughts are heightened when there’s violence on campuses throughout the country. We just had an example of high school violence in Colorado.”
Portantino noted the need for drills because there’s always time between when an incident first happens and when first responders arrive at the scene.
“This is to better prepare our campuses for an emergency,” he said. “As the types of emergencies have changed, so should the planning and preparation.”
Portantino has also coauthored bipartisan legislation with State Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) in the form of Senate Bill 541, which would require lockdown drills at private schools.
“Constituents like other high school parents have raised these concerns, and a constituent was how this issue was brought to our attention,” Portantino said.
Both bills note the need for drills to be “conducted in an age appropriate matter.”
Asked about the possibility of young children possibly being traumatized by such drills, Portantino said they need to prepare for the possibility of an active shooter.
“The bill is saying that each school has unique needs,” Portantino said. “Certainly an elementary school is different than a high school, and I don’t think in this case we should try to come up with one standard. You want the efforts to be tailored to the audience so that it is the most effective.”
Some school districts already have plans in place for active-shooter incidents.
“Right after Sandy Hook, what we did in the city was our chief met with all the superintendents and asked what we could do to improve school safety,” said Officer Derek Young of the Huntington Beach Police Department. “SROs helped figure out what some of the things we could do were to improve a school’s response to critical incidents. We focused on development and training of a lockdown plan.”
The HBPD established an active shooter system that relocates students from school to a separate location, where they can relocate with parents.
“The training was developed … and I went to every school and provided training to the principal and assistant principal,” Young said. “Over six years I’ve trained over 2,000 school personnel.”
Police taught the program to standardize evacuations for schools across the city. In the event of an evacuation due to an active shooter, students would be bused to the Huntington Beach Public Library. At that point, parents are instructed to go to the Huntington Beach Sports Complex. Law enforcement would then take note of what students are in the library and reunite them with their parents.
Each school also has a set number of faculty trained in this response system, according to Young. Elementary schools have five to 10, middle schools have 10 to 15 and high schools have 15 to 20. The faculty trained could be teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers or anyone working at the school.
Young explained that the city has a master list of every trained person at each school in the city, and the department updates it every year since school employees may move on to different jobs.
The department held its first mock evacuation on Dec. 10, 2018, with approximately 140 people participating in the drill.
The active shooter drill took place in the middle of the day during school hours, and Young said it went swimmingly.
“During their school career, students are taught what to do during a fire and earthquake,” he said. “This is no different than other drills. This is just another drill that we unfortunately have to do, because this is happening in the country.
Outside of training for lockdowns, some in law enforcement are focused on keeping guns off campus and out of the hands of minors.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer has created a Gun Violence Prevention Unit and warns parents to properly store their guns so they don’t fall into the hands of their children — “tragedies waiting to happen,” he says. Last month, a Pacoima man was charged after Los Angeles School Police Department officers learned a 9th grader threatened to shoot a child at Cesar Chavez Academy and that there were unsecured guns in the 9th grader’s home. Three similar cases were filed in the San Fernando Valley last year.
Social media dangers
School police, city police and sheriff’s departments regularly deal with social media threats against schools — which appeared to surge after Parkland.
Social media offers a perceived shroud of anonymity. It’s difficult to know what is and isn’t worth worrying about when an anonymous user on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat posts concerning messages or threats.
“We take all threats seriously and do a thorough investigation,” said Banales, the SRO at San Fernando Senior High School. “We figure out how credible the threats area, and when they get spread throughout social media it creates a panic. We have to deal with parents calling the office, and I’ll go to them to calm them down.”
When anyone makes a threat, officers attempt to identify the person who made the threat, and check at their homes for any weapons. Banales cited a need to take away the unknown when it comes to threats over social media.
“Columbine set the tone for me,” he said. “They train us very well at the academy for anything that comes our way.”
Things that students might intend as a joke or something not serious can be interpreted otherwise and cause chaos or fear within a student body.
“Freedom to express makes things difficult,” said Diaz, Riverside’s chief who spoke at a school safety symposium in March. “Those who host social media and moderate need to have clear policy and enforce those policies when the freedom of speech is abused. Strong policies that give moderators the tools they need to control the conversation is important.”
SROs juggle multiple duties
School shootings and threats attract a lot of attention. School resource officers, by connecting with students, are often well-positioned to deal not just with that issue but a myriad of other things that regularly come up. They aren’t just looking to find troublemakers and wrongdoers, they want to help students with things small and large, including at times difficult situations.
Brian Quick, a school resource officer for the Murrieta Police Department who is tasked with working in the Murrieta Unified School District, recently worked with Riverside County Child Protective Services to get an 8-year-old girl out of an allegedly abusive situation.
“We sometimes assist CPS calls” Quick said. “This was at one of my elementary schools. You just have to develop a rapport and relationship with students and gain their trust. They’ll talk to you about different things.”
Quick noted there’s a system for victims to report crimes anonymously said he’s also had to deal with alleged hate crimes and truancy. He said he recently had to round up four kids playing hooky.
Banales, with the Los Angeles School Police Department, believes he can relate to the kids at the school he works at due to having two kids of his own.
“Everybody is different and every personality is different,” he said. “Mentoring can’t be one-size-fits-all. I think I can relate to them because I grew up in the area and went to high school here.”
The duties of SROs vary. Some, such as Quick in Murrieta and Young in Huntington Beach, are tasked with covering multiple schools. Others, such as Deputy Eric Garcia with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, are assigned to one school.
Garcia starts his days at the sheriff’s station in Temecula. He grabs all his gear, hops in his squad car and drives over to Chaparral High School.
Chaparral is one of four high schools in the Temecula Valley Unified School District. Each high school has an assigned SRO on campus, and two additional deputies patrol every elementary, middle and charter school in the district.
Garcia said he’s tasked with not only keeping an eye on things at the campus, but students travelling to and from school also fall under his jurisdiction.
“If a kid tells me that they stopped at a gas station or convenience store and their bike got stolen, I can take a report,” he said. “And if there’s a fight on campus, the administration will look to me.”
Garcia noted that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t always work directly with schools or the school district on incidents, but they would work side-by-side if the worst were to happen.
“The school is one thing and law enforcement is another thing,” he said. “Sometimes we have to work together, but other times we break apart and do different things. The school district has things in place where they can contact parents via social media or email or phone calls, and they have a representative who puts out a lot of info letting people know there is police presence near a school. Information is constantly flowing in an out to parents.”
“Some schools are much more exposed and maybe impressionable to certain situations, but they plan very hard and we work together to educate staff on things like active shooter situations, but of course we have our training and plans for our procedures that we use,” Garcia added.
Young is one of two Huntington Beach Police two officers who patrol 45 schools in the city. Young keeps his eyes on the south side, while Officer Vicki Shroyer checks in with all the schools in north Huntington Beach.
“We handle any calls for service at schools,” Young said. “It could be criminal-related, or it could be traffic-related. My typical day starts in the morning and before school starts I’ll pick a school that either has traffic issues or any other issues that may need attention and I’ll do a patrol check.”
Young drops in at roughly four to five schools per day, across the five school districts in the city.
Joe Paulino has been chief of the San Bernardino School Police Department for almost the entire decade, and leads a department of dozens of security guards and sworn police officers assigned to schools across the San Bernardino City Unified School District.
Paulino said he wants the department to act in a way that makes kids see its personnel in a positive light, and not see officers as an outside force coming to take over the school.
“I think over the last eight years we’ve been more conscious of how our work affects our youth,” he said. “For example, we know that if a student is cited in middle school that can have a dire effect on their life. We try to be mindful of things like that.”
Officers are assigned to schools for more than one school year and use that time to learn the students’ names and know them by sight.
“We try to become part of the campus community, we encourage it,” he said. “I think you’ll find that this department is really conscious of the humanity of our work. Often times officers will respond to a call and it becomes routine. For us, there’s always that freshness to try and resolve issues. We respond with a purpose.”
The fatal shooting of Karen Elaine Smith and a student at North Park Elementary in the San Bernardino district in 2017, in which a gunman walked into the school through the main gate, has led to security improvements.
“I believe that technology should be used as a force multiplier,” Paulino said. “On our campuses you’ll see even more cameras and some people will need to be buzzed into schools.”
Linda Bardere, director of communications for the district, said she couldn’t elaborate on the specific improvements.
“Student and staff safety is and has always been a SBCUSD priority,” Bardere said. “However, due to pending litigation, I can only confirm the changes have been made.”
Paulino said he knows tragedy can strike anywhere and any time — in urban, rural and suburban settings.
“When I speak to schools about armed intruders, sometimes people just need to be given permission,” he said. “We tell them it’s okay to run if you think you need to run. It’s okay to hide if you think you need to hide, and if you need to fight for your life, it’s okay to do that too. Whatever you need to do to give yourself that thing called survival.”