Quick action by teachers and staff at Rancho Tehama Elementary School this week protected students after a gunman who killed five people reached the campus and shot through schoolroom windows – but never got inside.
Though two students were shot and injured, an immediate lockdown likely saved children’s lives that day. The incident has Sacramento-area parents and school officials discussing whether their current safety protocols are sufficient and how their campuses might have responded in a similar situation.
In the Sacramento region, officials at large districts say they already have annual training that includes lockdown drills, though not all involve students.
Julie Castle, a mother of three children in Elk Grove Unified schools, thinks her children are safe and is comforted by the level of preparation the district currently uses.
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“They do lockdown drills,” she said. “They do the best to prepare the kids for every kind of emergency, possibly if there is a shooter on campus. Outside of changing gun laws, I think our schools are doing a pretty good job.”
The Elk Grove district starts its school year by teaching elementary school students what to do if their school is placed on lockdown.
Children caught on the playground when the public address system sounds the lockdown warning are trained to go to the nearest classrooms. Once in classrooms, students are counseled to stay away from the doors and windows and to “be as quiet as a mouse,” said district spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton.
Teachers are instructed to pull anyone left outside into a classroom and to pull down blinds, cover the window in the door and to lock it.
Middle schools hold similar drills quarterly and high schools twice a year.
The Davis Joint Unified School District held active shooter training with the Davis Police Department in August at one of its junior high schools.
“Students didn’t participate, but administrators were there to observe and ask questions, to understand their needs and what we can do better,” said Maria Clayton, Davis Unified spokeswoman. “These are ongoing conversations.”
On Friday, the Davis district took a cautious approach at Holmes Junior High School by canceling classes after an anonymous message threatened gun violence at the campus.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has become more involved with school safety matters in recent years, said Trent Allen, San Juan Unified School District spokesman. He said the agency offers district guidance and advice on keeping schools safe, including alerts about incidents that might impact their schools.
A recent alert was sent to Sacramento-area schools by the FBI after New Jersey law enforcement officers tracked Instagram messages threatening school violence in Stockton, he said.
San Juan Unified officials brought district safety staff together Wednesday to talk about the Rancho Tehama shootings and attempt to learn something from the incident, Allen said.
The district serving 46,000 students has been adding and reconfiguring fences to limit access as money becomes available. The focus is on limiting entry points and making them easier to monitor and lock down if needed. Many of the suburban district’s campuses were built in the 1950s and 1960s, with multiple access points, Allen said.
Elk Grove Unified installed metal fences at least 6 feet in height, with locked gates around each of its schools, after Adam Lanza killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012. When school begins, the gates are locked and visitors must enter through the front office, where they are required to sign in, said Pinkerton.
In contrast, Davis Joint Unified doesn’t fence in its schools, which often share playgrounds with city parks, Clayton said.
“We live in a community where people really value the space and greenbelts and all of that,” she said. “Putting 10-foot fences around our schools is not likely.”
The district has strict check-in rules for visitors that include showing identification and having names checked against a law enforcement database in order to be on campus, she said. All doors on campus lock on the inside and all windows have blinds to thwart an active shooter.
Dr. Ron Stevens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said fencing isn’t always the answer.
“It’s hard to protect a school from all shooting events, if you have a determined shooter they will find out a way to make it happen,” he said.
He said schools should be certain their school safety plan – required by California law – is in place and up to date. First responders should be familiar with the plan, which spells out emergency plans, exits and entrances and the role of specific staff members. They should also visit campuses to become familiar with their layouts.
First responders, staff and students should take part in drills to prepare for a shooting crisis, Stevens said.
In Twin Rivers Unified, which serves 28,000 students in the North Sacramento area, campus employees are trained to lock down schools if they hear gunshots and not to wait for police notifications, according to spokeswoman Zenobia Gerald.
The district is one of the few to have its own police department, which trains during the summer to respond to active shooters and other crises, said interim police chief David Lugo. Officers take the last few weeks of summer to walk through each school to familiarize themselves with campuses, meet site administrators and new staff, he said.
“They know exactly where to go if there is a lockdown,” Lugo said. “The officers know the location of gates, custodian offices and the main office.”
Stevens said the Rancho Tehama incident serves as “a reminder it can happen anywhere, even in the small school districts. It is a reminder of the vulnerability schools have.”
“It puts schools on notice that we have to notch it up another level,” he said.