With still-fresh memories of this month’s Valentine’s Day shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead, students and staff at Lompoc’s Clarence Ruth Elementary School fortified themselves in locked classrooms Thursday morning and went over how they’d react to a similar incident.
Although Thursday’s exercise was only a drill and wasn’t held in direct response to the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — it was scheduled last August at the start of the school year — its significance was particularly pressing as debates rage nationwide about how best to protect America’s schools.
“Sadly, because of the climate and the national scene and things that happen, it is important for children to practice what they would have to do if someone came into their classroom,” Clarence Ruth Principal Judie Denton said after the drill. “It’s a heartbreaking piece to have to introduce children to, but they tend to know about it because they’ve watched the news with their parents and families. We just want everyone to be as safe and prepared as possible.”
That same message was echoed by the Lompoc Unified School District administration.
Clarence Ruth is one of a handful of LUSD campuses that has held similar exercises over the past week. Brian Jaramillo, the district’s director of pupil support services, said Thursday that Lompoc and Maple high schools delayed drills that were scheduled immediately following the Feb. 14 Florida shooting — “We didn’t want to set people off when they’re already anxious about the events in Florida,” he said — but he noted that those schools, and others, have since made up those trainings and continue to be diligent in preparing for emergencies.
He pointed out that LUSD schools typically hold two such drills per year in an effort to remain effective without watering down the message.
“Safety has always been our No. 1 priority,” Jaramillo said. “One of the things that we’re conscious of, though, is that we don’t want to have too many drills during the school year. If you do too many drills, then you kind of desensitize the students to the drill. We want them to do enough drills so they know what to do, but not so many that we’re gonna get in a real situation and they’re gonna think it’s just another drill.”
At Clarence Ruth on Thursday, the students and staff were all made aware that a drill was going to take place, Denton said. An alarm went off in the morning at the campus and all the classrooms were quickly locked up. Students in hallways were pulled into the nearest classroom.
Denton pointed out that the exercise, which did not include law enforcement, was mostly for teachers to prepare, but she said it was also important for students and their families.
She said she considered the drill to be successful, but one message she said she’d like to get out to parents and other relatives is that safety protocol dictates that students cannot be released immediately to parents or guardians in an active emergency situation.
“Parents will need to remain patient,” she said.
Just a day before the drill at Clarence Ruth, LUSD held one of its quarterly safety meetings with administrators. Lompoc Police Sgt. Kevin Martin was at that meeting and provided some valuable insight, Jaramillo said.
One of those recommendations from Martin, Jaramillo said, was to hold the drills at inconvenient or unexpected times. Jaramillo said some schools are already doing this. Lompoc Valley Middle School, for example, has held drills five minutes prior to the start of school or during periods between classes, he said.
“You don’t know when you’re actually in the situation whether you’re gonna just take off and run or whether you’re gonna think through it and do what you’ve been trained to do,” Jaramillo said. “We try to make the situations in the active-shooter drills, a lot of times, where staff doesn’t know, so they have to react and experience what it’s like in the moment to have to figure out what to do.”
LUSD recently began using a different type of active shooter training at its high schools.
This alternate method is called “ALICE,” which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. It was developed by Greg Crane, a former SWAT officer and schoolteacher, following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado that left 15 people dead, including the two shooters.
Through the “ALICE” method, which is supported by many law enforcement agencies but criticized by others, students are taught to be more proactive by blockading classrooms and preparing to fight back — such as by throwing objects at an intruder — if necessary before escaping.
“We kind of do an injustice when we tell (students) just to hide, because then you’re just kind of a sitting target,” Jaramillo said.
Jaramillo said he intends to review how the “ALICE” training was utilized at the high schools this school year before deciding this summer whether to introduce it to middle and elementary schools.
More than anything, though, Jaramillo said he wanted families to always feel welcome to talk to him or other LUSD officials if they have concerns, and he encouraged the community at-large to remain diligent in looking after its youth.
“As we found out in Florida, and in all of our (school shooter) situations, it takes a community to keep our kids safe and we appreciate all that people do to let us, and law enforcement, know when they do see warning signs,” he said. “I think we’re all on the same page in trying to look out for the kids in our community.”