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KPBS Midday Edition

Schools Review Plans In Wake Of Connecticut Shootings

Police cars and other vehicles fill a road near the scene of a mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.
Mario Tama
Police cars and other vehicles fill a road near the scene of a mass school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.

School staff, teachers and parents across the country are grappling with how to respond to Friday's tragic mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

Midday Edition Special Coverage: Connecticut Shootings
Kyla Calvert, KPBS Education Reporter Mark Sauer, KPBS Senior News Editor Wendell Callahan, Director of Assessment, Research & Pupil Services, San Diego County Office of Education Christie Barnes, author of the Paranoid Parent Guide

CAVANAUGH: Is this KPBS special coverage. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. As you just heard on NPR once again, a man with a gun has wreaked havoc in a mass shooting in America. This time up to 30 people dead, mostly children, in an elementary school in Connecticut. We will rejoin NPR special coverage in just a few minutes. First some San Diego context to this national tragedy. A school shooting is an event that San Diego is unfortunately familiar with. And we will break for an expected statement from President Obama when that occurs. I'm join leader by KPBS senior editor Mark Sauer. SAUER: Hi, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And KPBS education reporter Kyla Calvert. CALVERT: Hello. CAVANAUGH: Kyla, I said that San Diego has had an unfortunate history of school shootings. In fact we have the unfortunate distinction of having one of the first. CALVERT: That's right. That was a shooting at Cleveland Elementary school in 1979, January of that year. Brenda Spencer who was 16 at the time shot two people at the school and wounded 9. When she was arrested, she reportedly told police that she had shot the children and school employees because she said "I don't like Mondays." And she thought that that would spice things up. So in 2001 when she was up for parole, she told the parole board that she feels like a different person and that she -- whenever she sees a school shooting, she feels that she's partially responsible. CAVANAUGH: That was the first one that we know of certainly here in San Diego. But it wasn't the last. SAUER: No, that's right. It was more than 20 years later, March 5th, 2001, a 15-year-old with a long-barrelled gun shot two students to death and wounded more than a dozen others at Santana high school in Santee in the east county. The shooting started in a boy's bathroom and conditioned out in the quad. Some heard Charles Williams remark weeks earlier that he was going to "pull a columbine." And witnesses said he was smiling during the shooting spree. CAVANAUGH: And then it happened again. SAUER: About two weeks later at granite hills high school in El Cajon, an 18-year-old student shot and killed six people, apparently a copycat crime. No one was killed. He was wounded in a confrontation with a deputy. CAVANAUGH: Didn't we have a more recent one? At Kelly elementary? CALVERT: That's right. The shooter was just sentenced this year. That was Brendan Liam O'Rourke, and he jumped a face at Kelly elementary in Carlsbad in 2010 during the recess for 2nd and 3rd graders and started firing. He got off 6-shot, and then his gun jammed, and he was tackled by three one instruction workers who were working nearby. And two girls were wounded but no one was killed. CAVANAUGH: Reports are coming in now that the suspected shooter, the alleged shooter who was dead in the incident, his younger brother is in custody and being questioned by authorities. There's no authoritative word right now whether or not he was involved in this shooting in Connecticut. Up to 30 people are dead, most of them children in an elementary school. Wendell Callahan, director of pupil services for the safe schools unit at San Diego County office of education. Thank you for joining us. CALLAHAN: Thank you, Maureen. Glad to be here. CAVANAUGH: Do San Diego schools react in any way when there's news like this of a mass shooting somewhere in the country? CALLAHAN: Absolutely. One of the first reactions is to review all your present safety procedures. CAVANAUGH: And are the students informed in any way? CALLAHAN: The students, they're very well connected, obviously, with the media. So they're informed almost immediately through their own means. But yes, there's some kind of debriefing that can take place to not only inform students but also give them a forum to voice concerns and ask questions. CAVANAUGH: Now, I know that the county superintendent of schools Randy Ward issued a statement about San Diego's reaction to the school shooting in Connecticut. And one of the things that he calls this incident, and incident like this, are violations of a basic trust. What does that mean? CALLAHAN: Well, I have kids in school. And my assumption every morning when I drop my kids off at school is there's an implicit understanding, a social contract that the school is going to keep the kids safe. And when I pick them up in the afternoon or evening, they're going to be there to come home with me. And when something like this happens, that sort of basic understanding, that trust gets violated. And it's very disturbing and very -- it kind of shatters that trust. And it produces a lot of anxiety both as parents and obviously as professionals. We value that trust. We honor that as school people, that we have these young folks with us all day. And we're there to keep them safe and to make sure they're learning. And when something like this happens, it's very difficult to kind of shake that sense that something's gone horribly wrong. CAVANAUGH: Do you expect there will be parents who will go to schools just to see their parents this afternoon? CALLAHAN: Absolutely. CAVANAUGH: Now, how have San Diego schools actually increased security after the shootings that we've heard about that we have had here? CALLAHAN: Well, I was on-site after both the granite Hills and the Santana shootings, and since that time, at the county office of ed, we've instituted a series of trainings and workshops to support districts in developing what we call readiness and emergency management procedures. And a big piece of that is the school safety plan. One of the things we learned out of the columbine shooting was the first responders didn't have good access to the school site and weren't familiar with the physical plan. So an important component of that safety plan is a basic set of blue print, codes for all the alarm system, entry points, things like that. So if something like this were to happen, the first responders could get in there and deal with it immediately. CALVERT: What are some other components of those school safety plans that schools are mandated to have in place? CALLAHAN: One is a procedure for accepting visitors. CAVANAUGH: Right. CALLAHAN: I don't know if you've been to the school lately, but nowadays, if you visit an elementary school, you can't just walk on campus. You show your ID, you log in your purpose, your time, you're given a visitor badge. So that's been a big improvement. When I started in education, elementary school, high schools were pretty much open campuses. Anybody could walk on. CALVERT: That's right. One of the schools I visit for my stories, there are even cameras -- or there's a system set up where you have to take a photo of yourself standing at the computer. CALLAHAN: Sure. CALVERT: To get into the school. CAVANAUGH: Wendell if you would stay with us for just a couple minutes longer, I'd like to bring Christie Barnes into the conversation. She's an author of a book called the paranoid parents' guide. And it tries to bring some sense into the fears that people have about incidents like this. Christie, your work is cut out for you on a day like this because this is every parent a nightmare. BARNES: Yes, that's what I have written at the top of my note page. And it's one that we can't control. The Mayo clinic did a great survey, what do parents worry about most, and this was one of the top-5, this sort of shooting. But my book and my approach is let's look at the statistics, and let's get a statistical understanding to help us with these dangers and how we fix them. And it is a tragedy from one child, let alone 18 children or more, are hurt. But it seems like these things happen all the time because local news is spread nationally and then instant. So it seems like this happened next door. CAVANAUGH: Right. BARNES: They still do happen rarely. You have thousands of kids who die because they are not buckled in seatbelts or don't wear their helmet, but this has a different kind of horror in our minds as parents. And we have to learn how to control that and learn the right way to talk to our kids about it. And it's a horrendous tragedy. But I think we saw after San Diego, there were actually parents in schools across the country who took their kids to Walmart to get a toy, to create a shrine at their school. This promotes fear. And what I want to say is let's keep the fear factor down and really help our kids understand don't overexaggerate. CAVANAUGH: Well, what can parents do then? If the idea of going and buying a memorial for the children who died, if that only increases fear in children, what should parents do when their kids come home today from school, and they know all about the shooting? How do you deal with it? BARNES: Even though I know all the statistics, I'm also a mother of triplet 10-year-olds and a 12-year-old, and they're going to come home and say what happened? And my older daughter actually lived through a terrorist bombing in London where the children were locked in the school. And there wereR parents who picked up their kids and said the bad guys are coming to kill you! Answer their questions, don't show them too much, answer their questions sensibly, and try to be age-appropriate. But also, school is the safest place for them to be. The odds of this happening are very rare, and you're there, and your teachers are there to protect them. At the same time, you want to make sure your school is protected properly. CAVANAUGH: And I want to ask another question about that. Wendell Callahan, when you hear of an incident like this, do San Diego County schools reevaluate their safety situation considering based on whatever came out based on this particular shooting, how entry was attained and how the shooting occurred? CALLAHAN: That's exactly right. I'm also involved in operating some of our county schools. And our first thing we're going to do next week or when we get back from the holidays is sit down and review our site safety plans. There's turnoverwith the school safety officers, and we want to make sure all that information is current. Ms. Barnes also made a really good point, and that is schools are still stickally one of the stavest places for kids. Again when something like this happen, we've got to take this seriously and respond appropriately. CAVANAUGH: We are waiting for the president to speak about the school shooting in Connecticut. He has ordered all flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of the people who have died in the school shooting. And NPR is reporting that groups are going to the White House -- I'm sorry. President Obama has taken the podium. MR. OBAMA -- of the nation, and made it clear that he will have every single resource that he needs to investigate in heinous crime, care for the victims, council their families. We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. And each time I learn the news, I react not as a president but as anybody else would, as a parent. And that was especially true today. I know there's not a parent in America who doesn't feel the same overwhelming grief that I do. The majority of those who died today were children. Beautiful little kids between the ages of 5-10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers, men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams. So our hearts are broken today. For the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well. For as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early. And there are no words that will ease their pain. As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it's an elementary school in Newton, or shopping mall in Oregon, or a Temple in Wisconsin. Or a movie theatre in aurora, are or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics. This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we'll tell them that we love them. And we'll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight. And they need all of us right now in the hard days to come, they community needs us to be at our best as Americans, and I will do everything in my power as president to help. Because while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories but also in ours. May God bless the memory of the victims. And in the words of scripture, heal the broken hearted and bind up their wounds. NEW SPEAKER: President Obama speaking at the White House about the tragedy in Newton Connecticut at sandy hook elementary. CAVANAUGH: We will return to NPR coverage in just a moment, and obviously emotional Barack Obama speaking as president, and as a parent about his feelings about the tragedy in Connecticut. Again, up to 30 people dead, mostly children in that elementary school. I didn't want to heave before I let everyone know the county of San Diego has two mental health experts to discuss today's school shootings with the media. They can offer advice for parents on how to discuss the shootings with their children. And we have -- I want to thank KPBS senior editor Mark Sauer, KPBS education reporter, Kyla Calvert. Wendell Callahan, director of pupil services for the safe schools unit, San Diego County office of education, and I want to thank Christie Barnes, author of the paranoid parents' guide. Thank you all for very much for speaking with us. Back to NPR special coverage.

California schools are required to have site-specific safety plans for responses to every type of emergency. Wendell Callahan, who works on school safety issues for the San Diego County Office of Education, told KPBS Midday Edition that schools review and revise those plans after every event like the Newtown, Conn. shooting.

“One of the things we learned out of the Columbine shooting was the first responders didn’t have good access to the school site and weren’t familiar with the physical plant for example," he said. "And so an important component of that safety plan is a basic set of blueprints, codes for all the alarm systems.”

In addition to those school plans, San Diego Unified principals can contact school counselors and district crisis response teams for help in talking with students about the shootings, according to a district email.

A spokeswoman for Carlsbad Unified School District said school officials asked the city's police department to increase patrols near schools as a precaution. Carlsbad's Kelly Elementary School was the site of San Diego County's most recent school shooting. In 2010, Brendan O'Rourke jumped over a fence and opened fire while students were outside for recess. His gun jammed and he was subdued by three construction workers who were working near the school.

Christie Barnes, author of the Paranoid Parent Guide, told KPBS that parents should limit kids’ time watching the news and answer their questions with age-appropriate information without increasing their fear.

“But also school is the safest place for them to be," she said. "The odds of this happening is very rare and you’re there and your teachers are there to protect them. At the same time, you want to make sure that your school is protected.”

Schools must make their safety plans available to the public and parents can request to be part of reviewing and developing the plans.