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Amid Threats Of Violence, Who's Keeping San Diego School Children Safe?

February 20, 2013 2:06 p.m.


San Diego Unified District Police Chief Reuben Littlejohn

Trish Hatch, Ph.D. Director of the School Counseling Program in San Diego State University's College of Education.

Alfredo Aguirre, is County Director of Mental Health Services

Related Story: Amid Threats Of Violence, Who's Keeping San Diego School Children Safe?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The shootings at Sandy Hook sent a shockwave through schools across the nation. Unfortunately it's one of a series of shocks schools have had to absorb involving incidents of deadly violence by troubled students with guns. KPBS television and radio have been broadcasting a series of programs this week examining the debates about violence in our schools. Here in San Diego, shrinking budgets have forced schools to cut deep into nonteaching staff positions in recent years. That means many schools have been left without a full-time school counselor, and funds for school police have barely escaped the chopping block. We check in on what San Diego schools are doing and need to start doing to keep students safe. My guests, Reuben Littlejohn is San Diego Unified Police Chief. Welcome to the program.

LITTLEJOHN: An honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Trish Hatch is director of school psychology at San Diego state university's college of education. Welcome to the program.

HATCH: Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Alfredo Aguirre is County Director of Behavioral Health Sciences.

AGUIRRE: Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Chief, you run a police force to protect the schools in the San Diego unified school district. Tell us, what does that entail? How many school, how many students are you charged with protecting?

LITTLEJOHN: We're charged with protecting 171 schools with about 45 sworn police officers and 19 community service officers. The officers are out on campuses throughout the day, engaging in crime prevention, giving 100% of their attention to schools. We don't have any competing interests like domestic violence and things in the community. We deal specifically with what's going on in the schools.

CAVANAUGH: Most San Diego school districts do not have their own police. What do you think a specialized school police force actually adds to the security of schools?

LITTLEJOHN: Well, be we're student-focused. And we look and take our jobs very seriously. When we deal with kids, we want to make sure we're establishing those relationships and rapport. So if a kid has a need to come to a police officer, an adult on campus, there is a system in place that can deal with that immediately. We also take the responsibility of dealing with safe school issues like planning for emergencies and disasters and helping schools work through those situations so kids know where to evacuate and they're taking drills seriously, and we're evaluating threats and assessing those according to the needs.

CAVANAUGH: What is it about being on campus and getting to know the students themselves? What do you think that does to increase the security of San Diego unified?

LITTLEJOHN: What I've personally seen having been a campus police officer, when you establish that relationship on the front end, you're not only deterring crime because they are a police officer is on the campus but you're also in a position where you can prevent crime from happening and then react immediately because you've established that relationship. And that kid can come to you and tell you that someone has a knife or gun on campus, and we've seen that.

CAVANAUGH: Because there's that sense of knowing you guys.

LITTLEJOHN: Correct. Those relationships are really key in having those established on the front end and make a huge difference.

CAVANAUGH: Earlier this month, U-T San Diego reported that the school police have AR-15 platform rifles. Can you talk a little bit about the policies for those weapons?

LITTLEJOHN: Absolutely. That's not something that our officers have slung around their shoulders as they intersect with kids on a daily basis. That's something that we pull out and deploy only in cases where we believe there's an armed intruder or something that's threatening the students, the staff, or our recovers at that time. And we gauge that response accordingly.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And so where do you see them fitting into the security plans for San Diego schools? On that occasional basis that you described?

LITTLEJOHN: Yes, absolutely. In the three years that we have had those in our school district, we've only deployed them seven or eight times. And those were in instances as I have described already.

CAVANAUGH: Where are they kept?

LITTLEJOHN: We store those in our locked trunks, and they also have additional locking mechanisms that bolt them to the frames of the car.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me move on to Trish Hatch, if I may. And as I pointed out, Trish, there have been cutbacks to the counseling services in schools. Do you think the school counselors are important in preventing violence at schools?

HATCH: Oh, absolutely. The role of school counselor is vital in prevention and intervention within schools. And unfortunately we've lost over 20% of our school counselors in the state over the last few years. The role that elementary school counselor is particularly important because of the ability to provide comprehensive wrap-around service, the intervention and prevention, the classroom guidance, to teach the students the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need for getting along and conflict resolution and peer mediation. And counselors know that some students are having trouble, and they work with families and students to be able to provide the interventions they need when they notice a student is struggling in school. Then counselors can also be a part of the wraparound services and implementing PBIS programs and --

CAVANAUGH: What is that?

HATCH: Good question.

Positive behavior intervention and support program where is they work with the entire school team to describe policies and practices for appropriate discipline.

CAVANAUGH: Let's bring this down to an actual idea of a student. If a student is having a hard time in class, and they're sent to the counselor, so to speak, what services can that counselor provide? What indeed are counselors trained to spot in children?

HATCH: Well, that's very important. The counselors meet with the student individually to find out what the concerns are, they talk with the teacher, they do observations in class, they work with the families. And we have students that come to the school with all types of different issues and observations whether they are coming from home where is there might have been a trauma in the home or there might have been domestic violence issues or child abuse, or there might be a homelessness issue. And school counselors can work with the child and the family to be able to provide the support interventions they need to determine whether or not this is a situational moment where a particular student is having a short-term problem they can work with and provide over a series of one or two meetings with the student or maybe a small group intervention to teach the students some coping skills within schools or perhaps a student that is being perceived as a bully that just needs additional support and attention themselves to be able to find out what are the causes and the other issues at play here? A counselor looks at the whole school and will whole child to be able to see what are the concerns and the needs, and then works with faculty and teachers and administrators and resource recovers if necessary.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, in your estimation, are there enough school counselors in San Diego County?

HATCH: Absolutely not. The ratio statewide is about 810 students per counselor. And most schools have no counselors. Where there are counselors in elementary school, it's because the staff have been able to find funding or they have had a grant or obtained the resources, but there's no requirement for any school counselors in the State of California, unlike other states that have laws requiring counselors. In California, school counseling is really optional. And that's a horrible problem! We're deciding during budget cuts which of the vital necessary services students should need. And these are terrible decisions for administrators to have to make.

CAVANAUGH: Alfredo Aguirre, the county has a program that's meant to prevent mental health problems from escalating. Tell me about the Kick Start program.

AGUIRRE: This is an evidence-based program operated by providence community services. The idea is that if you intervene early with the early signs of serious are mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, you can ward off the onset of a serious decompensation or first break, per se. And by intervening early or providing psychosocial support, appropriate medication, you can actually delay the onset of this major mental illness.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So is this similar to the announcement that president Johnly Evans made after Newtown that there would be a new program to train teachers in school to spot students with problems?

AGUIRRE: Yeah, what's consistent with that model is the idea that you have people that work with the student body, the ears and eyes of the school, be trained in early identification. And this kind of gets to what Trish mentioned earlier about positive behavior interventions, to really look at those at-risk children where they can be identified. So what makes kick start work is the idea that you train those gatekeepers, those individuals that workday in, day without with adolescents. Whether it's a health clinic or a social service agency. They're given the tools to identify those youth that seem to be having those first signs.

CAVANAUGH: I'd like to get your input on that, Trish. The idea of students -- I mean teachers basically doing some sort of preliminary evaluation. And I know it's not really that. But I'm just going to use that phraseology. About which students might be having a problem. Is that something that is going to help school counselors or take the place of them or what?

HATCH: Oh, absolutely yes, it's important. I think everyone in school needs to be prepared to notice when students are struggling. All educators have a personal responsibility to be aware of what is considered behavior in school that is reasonable and appropriate and which things are outside those guidelines, and when and where to know who to access to get that help and intervention that you need. Then you want to be able to know how do I call on my counselor for that support? And the counselor needs to know when the intervention necessary is truly outside of their training and expertise. Because counselors aren't therapists. They'll work with the students and the families to provide the first, second, and third level intervention, small group counseling, individual counseling, family referral, but at some point, you need to engage other student support service professional, the social worker or psychology or external health agencies. A school counselor's responsibility is so vital and important because they become the broker of resources for many of the prevention and intervention and referral services so vital to our students. So that link is important.

CAVANAUGH: How do counselors work with school police officers?

HATCH: Well, in my experience we worked quite well. I was a counselor for many years and a school administrator prior to working at San Diego state. And when we worked with our resource officers who were trained as well as the officers here in San Diego unified to know how to enter a campus, to understand and have training on youth and schools and to recognize the developmental needs of students. Some of them have very good council listening skills that are so appreciative because it can be frightening for a young student to see a police officer and wonder if they're in trouble. So we partnered with our resource officers. And when you have a threat assessment issue, a suicide situation, when you have trauma on campus, everyone needs to support each other's vital professional role. And partnering together I think is so important. That's why I love the board of education of San Diego's resolution that they have to partner with the psychological association, with the San Diego police department to make sure that we're all on the same team so we can establish psychological emergency response teams and coordinate and work together instead of silos, that all of our teams can work together in a wraparound student format so every student gets what they need.

CAVANAUGH: Chief, there was an incident, two middle school students? San Diego County threatened to hurt or kill their classmates in recent weeks. In a student were to make a threat like that, would school police be brought in?

LITTLEJOHN: School police would be brought in, and school police are sworn police officers in the State of California, just like San Diego police department's police officers. So with that, we're entrusted through law to evaluate mental health issues from the standpoint of determining whether or not someone needs to be committed to be evaluated by a professional. So with that being said, we would be called in. And I want parents to know that they should treat those sorts of threat seriously because we do as well.

CAVANAUGH: How should schools evaluate threats like that made we students? How do you make shoe you're not overreacting to ordinary kid talk?

AGUIRRE: Well, I think one of the strategies is first you start with a universal approach. For example, although this is not talking about threats, but threats on one's own life, there is a program called speak, which attempts to break down stigma that students may be feeling, helping students develop that are potentially thinking about suicide, having them develop help-seeking behaviors, working with parents and staff to better identify and follow through and take the idea of suicide very seriously. The same approach would go, I think -- I think as mental health professional, we have to take the lead, let the school take the lead around how they assess situations. Does this involve bringing in the police unit? Obviously the role of the counselors, the counselors have the trust to some degree built with these students and know. So we're at the ready to respond. I think we are called in to duty, we're actually in 69 schools in unified. We provide treatment services. We're in 377 schools across the county. So we really rely on the joint efforts of faculty, school counselors, and the police. Unified has their own police department as part of their district. And they have their own mental health resource center. So they have been able to develop resources. But we are there really to supplement what they do.

CAVANAUGH: And what we found out is that there are so few counselors in elementary schools these days. Is there any effort that you see underway since we seem to have gotten ourselves over the hump of this incredible recession in school funding, that there'll be a turnaround in that?

HATCH: Well, it's a very interesting question. We're at a place now with the president's document on now is the time where there will be funds available. And I think one of the things that concerns me a little bit about the document, well, I love the fact that it supports school counselors, psychologist, and social work, it says something to the effect of they may want to have trained and armed police or may prefer increased counseling. And that either/or scenario is troubling. I think we need to ensure that all of our students have access to all of the counseling services that they need, and schools need to have an opportunity to access the support services of our school resource officers when we need them as well and not have to choose. And when it comes to making decisions about how to spend money, we need to think very seriously of what will be the minimum ratio of students to school counselors that we're going to tolerate having? And then move from there. When Carl Washington violence prevention act came out, this was after columbine, and I worked with the legislator on that piece. Many of the dollars went toward metal detectors and cameras, and not enough of it went to prevention. We have in the State of California for far too long put the greatest needs of our students last on the list. And every time there's a budget cut, school counselors particularly in elementary come up first. I think it's time to say our children deserve to have a comprehensive counseling program from the beginning and we shouldn't have to picket schools to get it and shouldn't have to have larger classrooms to get it.

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. Thank you all very much.


AGUIRRE: You're welcome.