Feb. 12, 2013
Misty Volaski, firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s been two months since the words “Sandy Hook” brought school safety, gun control and mental health to the forefront of the national discourse. Schools in the Ojai Valley have used that time to review their existing security policies and create new ones based on extensive discussions with staff, other schools and local law enforcement.
“We want to continue to be both inviting to the overwhelmingly positive number of visitors, mostly parents, and also be ready to deal with the scant few who would seek to disrupt the school,” said Ojai Unified School District superintendent Hank Bangser.
What follows is an overview of the changes made at Ojai’s schools as well as within the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department’s Ojai substation.
Like at all OUSD schools, lockdown drills are a common occurrence at Nordhoff High School. When a lockdown is announced, Ranger students and staff sit on the floor, away from doors and windows, in a group. They also lock doors and windows, close blinds and turn off lights, cell phones and other electronics. Contrary to what they would do in an earthquake or fire drill, students are instructed not to leave their classrooms if a fire alarm is pulled. Students and staff who are outdoors during the lockdown must move to the nearest classroom or “designated safe interior building.” Until the “all clear” is announced, staff will not release students.
The drill is tailored to be age-appropriate at the junior high and elementary schools, to avoid scaring children more than preparing them for a possible emergency situation. “They may use code words instead of ‘lockdown drill,’” explained Bangser.
One private school, Ojai Valley School, acknowledged that it has lockdown or “armed intruder” drills, but declined to offer details on these plans, citing security reasons. Others, such as Oak Grove and Besant Hill schools, simply said they are reviewing and updating their safety plans and policies. OVS and Oak Grove officials said they they have met with local law enforcement to review these plans. Villanova and Thacher schools did not return requests for comment.
“The independent school community has been … sharing best practices,” said Mike Hall-Mounsey, Ojai Valley School president.
OUSD visitors have long been asked to check in at the front desk at each school before proceeding onto the campus. At Nordhoff, they now receive a name badge, which must be returned before the visitor leaves. The staff has been instructed to keep an eye out for — and approach — unfamiliar faces that do not have the bright yellow sticker visible on their person. Those who refuse to check in and get a badge are to be reported immediately to the office.
“Our campus supervisors are great; they rarely let any person slip by unnoticed,” said Nordhoff assistant principal Dave Monson.
Chaparral High School, however, shares its campus with the school district offices, making visitor regulations a bit different. “The campus is open to both streets,” wrote former principal Marilyn Smith and current dean of students Linus Raibys. “And often adults wandering around do not have business at Chaparral but at other parts of the district office complex.”
Matilija Junior High School principal Bill Rosen pointed out the importance of communication, saying, “Many staff members do carry district radios and personal cell phones and can contact an administrator quickly if the need arises.” The same is true throughout the district, said Bangser.
Nordhoff has also recently upgraded its entire phone system to include phone intercom, Monson said.
Districtwide, officials have implemented a system that can quickly and automatically send out phone calls to parents to inform them of any emergency situation that may occur. In addition, district officials can post updated information on www.ojai.k12.ca.us under “emergency information.”
Sheriff’s Department Involvement
Ventura County Sheriff’s officers at the Ojai Police Station have now collected maps of every school that provide detailed, current information in a consistent format. Before Sandy Hook, “Each school had different kinds of maps that really didn’t meet our needs,” said Capt. Dave Kenney. Some were handwritten; others were outdated, omitting entire buildings.
In an active shooter situation — or any other situation requiring police intervention on campus — officers now know the exact layout of each school. “We know where the science class is, where ‘Quad B’ is, for example,” Kenney said. The maps show all entrances and exits, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods.
And all this information is instantly available to officers at the station as well as in the patrol cars.
Led by Sgt. Steve Arthur, Ojai Police have also reviewed the safety plans of each campus in multiple meetings with school officials. Arthur described the meetings as fruitful discussions to customize the best plans possible for each specific school site. “What works for Mira Monte isn’t going to work for Topa Topa,” he pointed out.
In another effort, Arthur was able to do some creative scheduling and give each school a police presence at consistent intervals. As part of their existing beats — but without costing the department more money — officers now “drop in frequently but randomly” at each school. The plan allows for the same sets of officers to visit the same schools, giving them the opportunity to build a rapport with staff and students.
While officers will be available to staff if needed — for advice, anti-bullying assemblies, etc. — officers will mostly be “in the background,” writing reports and eating their lunches in the parking lots, explained Kenney. “We don’t want to interfere with the educational process … We just want them to feel secure.” Particularly with younger children, Kenney said, familiar faces are less “scary,” so that if an emergency situation were to occur, students would feel more comfortable following directions from a deputy they already knew.
Nordhoff High School still does have a student resource officer on campus as much as possible, a few days a week, as the OUSD and sheriff’s department budgets allow.
Sgt. Arthur said the most important thing, though, is “being up on your training and … being prepared to act” — and to be flexible, depending on where the emergency situation lies in a campus.
Along with his fellow officers around the county, Arthur and the Ojai officers regularly attend training courses organized by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, which are especially important as new information and studies come to light. In the past, drills across the country often directed students to “go to their home rooms,” Capt. Kenney said. “But that might not be the safest place … that could send students right into the line of fire.” And, particularly before Columbine, officers would set up a perimeter around an active shooter. Now, said Kenney, “we will go directly toward the action.”
Ultimately, “we don’t want people to feel helpless, or have something happen and people say, ‘Oh, I knew there was something weird about that guy.’”
“If you see something, say something,” emphasized Arthur. “Tell somebody so we can make a threat assessment … you could be the first step in preventing another tragedy.”