In California, a Textbook Lockdown of a School

May 16, 2005
Testing out a district safety and security plan following a gun sighting

In the seconds after a district locksmith thought he spotted a gun on a Paso Robles elementary school one day last week, campus staff began a series of emergency procedures.

None of it was guesswork.

Even before the infamous shootings at Columbine High School, schools have written safety plans, checked them and drilled repeatedly to handle the unthinkable. But since the Columbine massacre left 14 people dead six years ago, regulators and educators have sharpened their emergency planning focus even more.

"It's got the schools looking to improve and to practice (emergency drills)," said Mike McGuire, safety manager of Schools Insurance Program for Employees, a group that provides safety training and resources for the 10 districts in San Luis Obispo County. "They all have emergency plans, and they all practice those plans."

Elementary and middle schools conduct emergency drills monthly in Paso Robles, said Ashley Lightfoot, the district's business manager who also oversees the school safety plans. High schools are required to conduct them twice a year.

For parents, they say, the good news is that schools are responding faster and more predictably to emergencies.

But the state only requires that districts update safety planning once a year, and it does not follow up to check the adequacy of those plans.

"There's no real approval process," said Tina Jung, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Education. "The districts just have to make sure they have a plan."

Jung said the lack of oversight is likely because of a lack of funds.

The responsibility for making sure the school safety plans meet state requirements is up to the districts, said Linda Sargent, the statewide Safe School coordinator. She oversees the training of district- and school-level safety coordinators.

All local districts have at least part of their school safety plans reviewed by McGuire's group, which has a primary responsibility of maintaining a self-insurance system for workers' compensation claims filed against districts.

State law requires districts to work with local law enforcement to devise the plans, which acts as a de facto verification, said Bill Spencer, who works for Sargent in training school employees in this county and who is also an administrator with Paso Robles Public Schools.

"It's the law," he said. "It has to happen up front."

There is a state proposal to add an audit of schools' safety plans in regular compliance reviews that each school and district must go through periodically, Sargent said. She predicted it would be in place within three to four years.

District officials and local police say everything that happened at Winifred Pifer Elementary School last Monday afternoon went according to plan, from the moment Principal Karen Wright sent the schoolwide alarm locking down the campus.

"This is not a drill," she told the nearly 40 people still on campus, more than half an hour after the final school bell.

At the same time, the school secretary was on the phone to the district office, alerting the emergency response team. It consists of administrators who have received safety training and have served on committees that review schools' safety plans.

Wright then called the Paso Robles Police Department, where a dispatcher told her officers had already been informed and were on the way to the campus, located on Creston Road just north of Niblick Road.

The school lockdown was cleared about a half hour later, after Paso Robles police and district workers searched the school's 30 classrooms and did not find anyone with a gun.

"Everybody was really calm and professional and did a really great job, because they know what to do," Wright said.

Police now suspect the after-school incident was prompted by a boy with an air gun. They have found neither boy nor gun, but did recover air gun cartridges on campus.

The locksmith told police he saw the boy load the orange-tipped handgun and act as if he was shooting twice into the ground. Federal law requires an orange tip on all toy guns.

School had ended more than half an hour before the gun sighting, so there were only about 15 students and slightly more teachers still on campus, Wright said.

California requires every public school to have a response plan and to update it annually.

The state requires each school to work with local authorities -- a police or fire department -- and members of the public when they formulate their response plans.

Paso Robles Public Schools is among the five districts in the county that run their completed plans by the insurance group as well as police and fire departments, said Lightfoot.

"There's a lot of people who are experts ... looking through these things," he said.

Jason Taylor, the district's safety coordinator and transportation supervisor, noted that schools have plenty of incentive -- primarily for the safety of children, as well as potential liability issues -- to make sure the plans meet state requirements.

"We want to be prepared," he said. "The main focus is the safety of the kids."