As the nation mourns the tragic death of 19 students and two teachers at a school shooting last week in Texas, it’s natural for local parents and students to have concerns and questions. Are our schools safe? How can I talk to my kids about something so evil?
Regarding safety at local schools, the superintendents at the four local school districts each had comments about its priority.
“We can’t provide our students with a high quality education without first ensuring they are safe, and it is a responsibility FUESD school leaders and employees take very seriously. We will continue to do everything we can to make the safety of our students our top priority today and always,” wrote Dr. Candace Singh of the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District in a letter to parents sent May 24, the day of the shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
Ilsa Garza-Gonzalez of the Fallbrook Union High School District had a similar comment in a letter to parents: “We continue to make the safety of our students, their families, and our staff the number one priority for our district. We are committed to continue assessing and strengthening our safety plans and procedures.”
“Safety is always the number one priority,” said Dr. Maritza Koeppen, principal and superintendent of the Vallecitos Elementary District in Rainbow. “We have a safety plan that is always being updated.” She gave a “shout out” to Lt. Ricardo Lopez, former commander of the Sheriff’s Department substation who after learning the school didn’t have security fencing around the school, connected with County Supervisor Jim Desmond. Later the district received a $125,000 grant arranged by Desmond, and the fence is in place.
All the schools in the region have protective fencing and a single access point for access, through the main office, where visitors are screened.
“Any time we see something tragic like this happen, it’s natural to think about what we can do to prevent it from happening here,” said Joseph Clevenger of the Bonsall Unified School District. “It’s a time to reflect and improve.”
Prior to the Texas tragedy, the Bonsall district had a couple of school safety projects scheduled in coming weeks, including additional fencing and cameras on some of the five schools in the district.
Clevenger said safety protocols are coordinated with the Sheriff’s department.
“That’s what is so great about the small town feel of our community,” he explained. ‘It brings strong relationships, so when there are storms, you know where to turn for help. We work closely with both fire and law enforcement.”
Summer is a common time for schools to be updated.
“We are always looking to improve the safety of our students and staff,” said a spokesman for the Fallbrook Elementary School District. “Each summer, our leadership team tours campuses and reviews safety plans to ensure procedures are up to date and facilities are as safe and secure as possible.”
Security cameras seem to have mixed appeal.
The Vallecitos district is in the process of upgrading its camera system, Koeppen said. However, the FUESD response about cameras was contrasting: “We do not have cameras on campus. We prioritize safety in every way possible, but we also prioritize the privacy and identity of our students and staff. Students and staff are never recorded without their explicit permission.”
There are eight elementary school sites plus Potter Junior High School in the Fallbrook Union Elementary District.
At least two of the school districts – Bonsall Unified and Fallbrook Elementary – feature a high-tech visitor management system that enhances school security by reading visitor drivers’ licenses (or other approved state-issued ID) and comparing information to a sex offender database. Once cleared through the system, a visitor badge is produced that includes a photo.
“We truly believe that the safest place for your student is in school,” Singh said. “Every FUESD school has a safety plan and procedures that contribute to maintaining a safe learning environment for our students. These plans are constantly reviewed by our school employees, who consistently seek to implement best practices in maintaining the safety and security of our schools.”
Since the fall of 2019, the state education code requires schools to have a Comprehensive School Safety Plan for each school that include strategies aimed at the prevention of potential incidents involving crime and violence on the school campus. The plans are developed by school staff, parents and law enforcement, then reviewed by their respective school boards.
With substation commander Lt. Aldo Hernandez away for a week, Sgt. Jason Scroggins responded to questions, saying deputies often spend time during drop-off and pick-up at local schools when available. The department annually reviews each school’s safety plans so they are prepared for anything.
Koeppen, as principal and superintendent of the single school in her district, said her only concern was the slow response time from the Sheriff’s substation to their rural community.
She also said the County Office of Education has been a valuable resource.
“Something like this helps remind us to be proactive and revise anything as needed,” she added.
All the schools in the four local districts have a “closed campus” – meaning students stay on campus, including for lunch, and only authorized visitors are allowed.
The other question from the beginning about talking to children about the school violence is delicate. There are many factors, including age and maturity, and if it’s the responsibility of the school and/or parents.
The school districts offer counseling and/or referrals.
“The truly senseless loss of life is difficult to process,” said Singh. “After sadly learning of this violent act, I know many of us are left angry, afraid, and unsure of the future. As we try to make sense of the event ourselves, we are also charged with the responsibility of explaining these events to the students and children around us. Our children look to us for support, understanding and reassurance.”
Singh said the district provides resources for parents as support in discussing the Texas incident. She said the San Diego County Office of Education has an excellent online resource hub to support conversations.
Garza-Gonzalez said the National Association of School Psychologists also offers tips for parents and educators to talk with children about violence. Some of these suggestions are:
• Reassure children they are safe and review safety procedures.
• Create a sense of safety by returning to normal, predictable routines as soon as possible.
• Make time to talk and listen to the concerns and feelings of children.
• Limit the use of media consumption of these events to lower their stress and to maintain balance and perspective.
• Acknowledge that sleep difficulties are common and can lead to fatigue and poor participation.
In addition, Garza-Gonzalez noted that the district will continue working in partnership with local law enforcement agencies and our San Diego County Office of Education Safety Coordinator to provide a safe and caring learning environment.
For students and staff who may need additional support at this time, the superintendent encouraged parents to make use of its Wellness Center staff, school psychologists, or counseling staff.
Koeppen said the Vallecitos district has a contract with Care Solace to provide mental health care. She said the support service is not only for students, but also for families in the district with or without insurance.
“We talk to the children about how to handle difficult situations. Anxiety and mental health issues are taken seriously,” she said.
Clevenger also shared about community contacts and resources for parents for emotional support.
“We always have teachers and staff greet the students when they arrive, but after what happened, we made a point of having all our staff, including counselors, out there giving support and greeting the students when the students were dropped off,” he said.