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  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    From left, Isadora Martinez, Felicia Fields-House, Marissa Montanez and Brittany Teresinski look Wednesday at toys and letters left at Sacramento's Hiram Johnson High School in remembrance of the children and school staff members killed in the Dec. 14 school shooting spree in Newtown, Conn.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    Sacramento students donate stuffed animals and write remembrance letters Wednesday during a lunchtime vigil at Hiram Johnson High School for victims of the deadly shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Sacramento-area schools evaluate safety in wake of Connecticut shooting

Published: Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012 - 7:46 pm

It was on the front page of newspapers across the nation, the photo of a line of schoolchildren – hands on the shoulders of the student in front of them – being guided out of the school where 20 of their classmates and six adults had been killed.

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., shook parents to the core.

Locally it has meant more police officers on and near schools and a review of safety procedures at nearly every campus in the Sacramento region.

"We're making a concerted effort to be visible so parents and kids can see us," said Galt Police Chief William Bowen.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department also is trying to get more officers out to local campuses, said spokesman Sgt. Jason Ramos.

Natomas Unified, which eliminated campus police officers in January 2010 to save money during budget cuts, is now considering a contract with the Sacramento Police Department, Superintendent Chris Evans said Wednesday.

The district has had problems of its own in recent days. A teenager was arrested last week after he was spotted with a concealed weapon near the tennis courts at Inderkum High School. The day before, a man and woman had been arrested at the school for allegedly assaulting a student and a staff member.

Schools in the Sacramento region expelled 13 students and suspended three others during the 2011 school year for possessing a firearm, according to data from the California Department of Education. They expelled and suspended far more students for carrying other types of weapons, including knives.

Local schools did not report any instances last year of someone other than a student illegally bringing a weapon onto campus. Statistics for this year are not available.

Over the past two decades, there have been about 500 violent deaths in schools across the nation, said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. "I feel pretty safe around here," said Michelle Lubner, after dropping her second-grader off at Lake Canyon Elementary in Galt this week. "But it's always in the back of your mind."

Lake Canyon, like many area elementary schools, is encircled by an iron fence with gates that are locked during school hours. Visitors must check in at the office to gain entry.

Having a secured campus is the most important thing a school can do to stay safe, Stephens said.

But sometimes even a perimeter around a school isn't enough. Sandy Hook Elementary had a security system installed recently that locked the campus during school hours, Stephens said, but the gunman, Adam Lanza, used a high-powered weapon to blast his way in the door.

"I don't know a school district in America that is prepared to fight off someone who enters a campus with assault rifles and tries to take it over and victimize the students," he said.

But there are other things that can be done to prevent campus violence. School staff should assess all threats with the help of mental health professionals and have a responsible supervision plan for the campus before, during and after school hours, Stephens said.

Galt's police chief said schools also should require visitors to check in and wear a visitor's badge while on campus. "If they don't have one, someone should stop them," Bowen said. "The biggest thing is to be vigilant and to know who should be on campus and who shouldn't be."

Keeping school safe has gotten more difficult in the face of years of state budget cuts. Sacramento-area school districts for years contracted with local law enforcement agencies for police protection, but recently have been reducing or eliminating that service. The result: an officer at many high schools and at some middle schools, but rarely at elementary schools.

"Years ago, when resources were better, we had a number of schools that had full-time (school resource officers) assigned to them … that we don't today. … Now one officer might be responsible for between three to five schools," Ramos said.

Mark Ghilarducci of the state's Emergency Management Agency recommends that school district leaders review security plans in light of the Sandy Hook tragedy. He asks – at the very least – that they talk to staff about school safety.

Local school leaders are paying heed, with most planning meetings with police agencies this week. Galt school leaders met with officials from the Galt Police Department on Tuesday to review safety measures and reinforce procedures, Bowen said.

The review didn't result in any changes to security procedures, the chief said, but the meeting helped to reinforce the plans that are in place.

Officers from the West Sacramento Police Department offered staff training Tuesday at every school in the Washington Unified district on how to deal with a violent intruder.

And Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond canceled all of his out-of-town meetings this week so that he and other staff can meet with law enforcement to review safety procedures, the district said.

The Sacramento County Office of Education is gathering school leaders together Jan. 8 for a workshop on school safety. Experts will tell educators what a school safety plan – mandated by the state – should include, how to work with first responders during a school emergency and how to deal with the emotional aftermath of a school tragedy, said Tim Herrera, SCOE spokesman.

Local law enforcement agencies also are reviewing their procedures for responding to "active shooter" scenarios in response to the Connecticut shooting, officials said.

In the active-shooter scenario, officers are going to be more aggressive – going in and neutralizing the intruder immediately, Ramos said. He said the Sheriff's Department practiced an active-shooter situation with other emergency personnel at Sacramento's Sheldon High School during the summer.

Galt police escorted students off the Galt High School campus in the middle of lunch last year. Administrators were aware of the drill, but students weren't.

"We cleared the campus in less than six minutes," Police Chief Bowen said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Diana Lambert



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