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Local school threats trend in wake of Florida shooting

Local school threats trend in wake of Florida shooting

Tulare County law enforcement agencies investigate seven school shooting threats within two weeks, arrests made in some

By Paul Myers and Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – The threat of gun violence in schools was on the other side of the continent two weeks ago, but in the last half of February schools in Tulare County have reason to worry. Over the last 14 days there have been seven threats from students within Tulare County schools and eight arrests.

On the afternoon of Feb. 15 deputies with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department responded to Pixley Middle School for a report of threats. During the investigation, it was learned that a 13-year-old student at Pixley Middle School was making threats to “shoot up the school”.

The following Thursday, Feb. 22, two more students were arrested in connection with the threat from Feb. 15. During the investigation, detectives interviewed the two females and confirmed they were implicated in the crime. Their parents were notified and are cooperating with the investigation.

Subsequently, two search warrants were issued and detectives were able to seize one firearm, assorted ammunition and several gun magazines during the course of those searches. The seized gun was voluntarily given to Detectives by a family relative.  The firearm was only taken for safekeeping. The juvenile females were arrested and booked at the Juvenile Detention Facility in Visalia.

On Feb. 20 the Porterville Unified School District was made aware of a threat made on social media by a student at Sequoia Middle School. As a result one student was arrested but little more information was released as of press time.

On the same day Exeter Unified School District and the Exeter Police Department were forced to investigate a potential shooting threat. While the investigation revealed there was not a credible threat to speak of, tensions boiled to a head on Friday, Feb. 23. Parents plucked their students out of an ongoing assembly in the midmorning, and approximately 400 students left campus for the day, no questions asked.

One 15-year-old student from Tech Preparatory High School was arrested on Feb. 20 for his remarks made on Feb. 15. According to a Tulare Police Department report, the student said to classmates and faculty they wished they had carried out the same shooting at the school. The student left campus before the school could take action. It wasn’t until Feb. 20 when they were found and arrested on criminal threat charges.

Last Thursday, Feb. 22, a 13-year-old female student of Woodlake Valley Middle School posted a gun related threat on social media. One student who noticed the post relayed the threat to the school’s “tip line”, which was one of the ways the Woodlake Unified School District found out about it. The Woodlake Police Department went on to investigate the threat and made an ensuing arrest of the 13-year-old girl the next day, Friday.

Woodlake Police Department did not respond for comment by press time.

As recently as this Monday, Feb. 26, two more students were arrested in Tulare. A 14-year-old Tulare Western student was arrested for making threats they were going to carry out a school shooting. According to a Tulare Police Department report, administrators were made aware of the threat via their anonymous tip from their district reporting system. The student was immediately located and brought in for questioning.

A 16-year-old from Mission Oak High School was arrested for making threats to a teacher about carrying out a school shooting. After being arrested they told police they were only “joking.”

Similarities between California and Florida
There are few differences between policies in place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. and schools throughout Tulare County. Local school districts have school resource officers assigned to their campuses. All middle school and elementary campuses are locked during school hours, with the front office serving as the only way in or out. High school campuses are locked down except for lunch, when schools post a staff member at each open gate as students exit and later return to campus.

The number of school resource officers varies from district to district. Larger school districts such as Visalia Unified have an officer assigned to all five middle schools and its four comprehensive high schools, which are overseen by a sergeant assigned to the schools. Farmersville Unified Superintendent Randy DeGraw said his district contracts with the Farmersville Police Department for two school resource officers for its four campuses, with officers rotating from the high school and middle school to its K-2 and 3-6 grade campuses. Exeter Unified and Lindsay Unified each contract for a single officer with their respective police departments that is on call and splits time between planned, proactive events and issues that arise across their campuses. Lindsay Unified, which has eight campuses, also contracts with an emergency management consultant. Woodlake, the smallest unified school district in the county, does not have a dedicated school resource officer but works closely with the Woodlake Police Department, which is less than a quarter mile away.

“I can walk there in five minutes so they can respond in just moments,” said Drew Sorenson, superintendent of Woodlake Unified.

In addition to having officers assigned to campuses, local school districts also run emergency drills, including lockdown drills for active shooter scenarios, several times each year. Sorenson said Woodlake Unified campuses run fire, earthquake and lockdown drills quarterly while Lindsay Unified and Visalia Unified run drills monthly and Exeter Unified and Farmersville Unified run drills a few times per year. Russell Ernst, head of human resources for Lindsay Unified, said the district also assigns a staff member at each site to observe the drills and provide notes on ways to improve them.

“The safety of our employees and learners is taken very seriously,” Ernst said. “We have drills for many scenarios and they are practiced often.”

But nothing can completely prevent a school shooting, especially when the threat could come from a current student. As school shootings become more common, districts are constantly evaluating their policies and procedures.

“We all live by the motto, ‘If you see something, say something,’” said Sorenson, whose staff is extremely close with a smaller student population in the tight-knit rural community of Woodlake. “Our kids are not afraid to talk frankly with staff about concerns they are having.”

Robert Crow, director of student services for Visalia Unified, said lockdown procedures are posted in every classroom in every grade at every campus. “Students and parents are very good at reporting these things and we take all of those seriously.”

In Lindsay, Ernst said parents, students and community members have created a culture of positive behavior and trust. In 2008, Lindsay Unified implemented its performance based system which not only revolutionized the way the district thinks about learning but also how students behave. Instead of receiving a grade based on academics, Lindsay learners are also graded on their behavior, in areas like citizenship, which directly affect their score when it comes to college scholarships. In the last five years, the district has seen suspensions drop by 65% and its School Climate Index (SCI), a survey which measures how safe students feel from violence while at school, increased from being average in the state (52md percentile) to among the best (99th percentile) in California.

“The learning environment we have created here relies on student’s taking responsibility for their own learning and their own actions,” Ernst said. “Students feel very comfortable reporting dangerous or illegal activity as part of the role in the learning community.”

Tim Hire, superintendent of Exeter Unified, said issues raised during the Florida school shooting have already caused his staff to reexamine their emergency drill policies. But outside of metal detectors at every school, Hire said most school shootings come down to relationships between staff and students.

“There are more students that need mental health services than the school district can provide,” Hire said. “And that’s a societal issue that needs to be addressed.”

Differences between California and Florida
One difference between California and Florida public schools is the requirement that all school boards approve a safety plan and submit them to the state’s department of education. Since 2014, California school districts have been required to submit comprehensive school safety plans for each of their campuses by March 1 of each year. Most school boards approved their annually updated plans earlier this week. In the plans, school site councils or designated safety committees must work with educators, classified staff, parents, and community leaders; they must consult with law enforcement to ensure these plans are effective and current. The safety plans must comply with all requirements, and counties must notify the California Department of Education by October 15, 2018, of any schools that have not complied.

“I encourage the inclusion of policies and practices that go beyond Education Code requirements, including, but not limited to, threat assessment protocols, mental health policies, bullying prevention policies, active aggressor/shooter protocols, lockdown and shelter-in-place procedures, and regular drills and exercises for all staff,” stated California Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson in a Feb. 1 letter reminding districts of the importance of the plans.

“In light of the increase in serious school and public safety concerns and emergency events and to inform safety plan revisions and updates,” a Feb. 1 reminder from the California Department of Education urged school leaders to ask the following questions:

  • Did our local educational agency (LEA) conduct drills and exercises effectively, and what did we learn from them?
  • Has our LEA developed and maximized relationships with first responder agencies and community partners?
  • Are all of our educators and school staff trained and prepared for emergencies?
  • What areas need plan improvement and what resources do we need to build capacity?

To assist schools and districts in assessing behavioral threats, and in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education REMS Technical Assistance Center, the CDE sponsored two statewide trainings recently, titled “School Behavioral Threat Assessments: An Introduction.”

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Editor and reporter for The Sun-Gazette. Vice president of Mineral King Publishing, Inc.

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