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O.C. Schools Use Several Safety Tactics

April 21, 1999|LISA RICHARDSON and KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County high schools are prepared for shootings--up to a point.

Students in Santa Ana are taught how to dive under their desks or onto the ground when gunshots are fired, and students at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton are herded into a room when a "code red" intruder drill sounds, then the campus is locked down.

Those precautions, however, largely target dangers from outside the school campus. If the threat is from within, officials said, little can be done to stop a well-armed assailant.

The shooting of as many as 25 students and staff at Columbine High School in suburban Denver on Tuesday served as a shattering reminder to school officials of how vulnerable students are in the face of determined violence.

"Whenever there is any type of threat, we lock down the campus to make sure it's secure," said James Miyashiro, police services chief for the Santa Ana Unified School District. "But no matter how well you set something up, nothing's going to prevent someone from running into a building and shooting at people."

At the Orange County Department of Education, risk manager Arlene Ito wondered whether a random, unpredictable occurrence such as the Denver shooting is something schools can guard against.

"You see something like this and say, 'Is there anything they could have done to prevent it?' But it's really too soon to tell.

"These kids obviously had a mission; they had the intent to kill, and you can't prevent everything," Ito said.

In November, an angry parent took two administrators hostage at Ito's agency before he was killed by a Sheriff's Department sharpshooter. Since then, the Education Department has reviewed its security measures but ultimately decided against major security changes.

"We're a public entity, and while we have sign-in and sign-out procedures, locking up our facility is not an option," Ito said.

Sunny Hills relies on another tool in the fight against school violence: posters in every classroom advertising the "safe schools hotline" number, a line where students can anonymously report suspicious activity on campus.

Tip lines are one of the biggest improvements schools have made since a spate of shootings last year stunned parents and students, said June Arnette, associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village. The lines help break a "code of silence" among kids.

"These anonymous tip lines make the reporting climate feel safe for students to call in, because they know they won't be interrogated on the other end," Arnette said. "They know the tip will be acted on without them being identified as a tattletale or a snitch."

Many administrators are prepared to face students today who feel anything but safe in the wake of the Colorado shooting.

Students at all Anaheim high schools will be greeted this morning by an announcement from the principal, said Supt. Jan Billings.

"They'll be complimenting kids and staff for past efforts to keep our school safe," Billings said. "The principals will also urge students who want to talk about the Colorado situation to talk about it. We will reinforce that if students see or hear anything that concerns them to tell an adult."

Certainly, in the wake of shootings at other schools, campuses have become more wary of outsiders than ever before.

In Santa Ana, school police go undercover to test how quickly they are stopped by school officials, who are responsible for keeping outsiders from roaming the campuses.

The system works well, Miyashiro said. In nine out of 10 recent tests, the plainclothes officer was instantly stopped and questioned.

School officials also keep close watch on students during lunch and when they are between classes.

"We have a single point of access that we monitor pretty regularly, and we watch passing periods very carefully," said Loring Davies, principal of Sunny Hills. "And we have regularly scheduled drills for everything from earthquakes to fires to a 'code red' situation, when we lock down. . . . But you can't have a plan for every contingency."

Especially when the threat isn't from an outsider but a student.

"There's no guarantee, no silver bullet," Arnette added. "You can take every precaution conceivable, and there will still be that one troubled kid who will vent his problems at school."

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