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SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Santana High Had Elaborate Security Plan

Safety: A counselor was assigned to mediate student conflicts, and the principal had SWAT training. 'We don't know why this happened,' she says.

March 06, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time of a severe school counselor shortage in California, Santana High School assigned one counselor just to mediate conflicts and help students manage their anger.

Administrators bought extra phones, one for every classroom. And additional radios and loudspeakers were installed--all meant to spread word of trouble quickly across the sprawling campus of nearly 2,000 students.

Principal Karen Degischer had even undergone SWAT training, so she would know how to handle a hostage situation.

The Santee high school went the extra mile, but even in a school apparently so well-prepared, it wasn't enough.

"Santana High has always been prepared for disaster but not of this magnitude," Degischer told a news conference Monday after a student shot two other students to death and wounded 13.

Degischer and district officials said that teachers and security supervisors carried out their responsibilities after a 15-year-old freshman allegedly opened fire. Students were swept into classrooms after the shooting and supervised by teachers before being escorted off campus.

"We were prepared to respond," Degischer said. "We had things in place for good communication. And yet, we don't know why this happened."

Teacher Elizabeth Castagnera was working with her students when an announcement came over the public address that "all of our classrooms should be locked." SWAT members "came into our room 15 or 20 minutes later and said we would be evacuating in about half an hour."

Santana's precautions grew out of something known as a "safe schools plan."

California law requires every school in the state to maintain such a plan and to update it annually.

The documents must address several broad areas, including procedures for notifying teachers about dangerous students and for ensuring a safe environment. They also require schools to establish rules for maintaining discipline.

Santana officials updated their plan last May, along with the other schools in the Grossmont Union High School District, officials said.

Under the Santana plan, the school has a crisis team of administrators, teachers, counselors, parents and a sheriff's deputy who are on call to respond to disasters. Administrators and campus security meet regularly with law enforcement authorities, said Marge Cole, who oversees the safe schools program for the school district.

The counselor assigned to help resolve student conflicts is part of the plan.

"This person would be the first line of trying to find out what's going on," Cole said.

But Cole was uncertain whether the suspect had met with the counselor or whether teachers had been notified of any danger he posed.

The shooting in Santee reverberated in schools around the state.

The Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday sent messages to all of its principals reminding them to review school safety plans. The district also sent copies of a book to each school--"Making Threats Is No Joke"--in English and Spanish.

The district dispatched its top counselor to help students and staff at Santana High.

Marleen Wong, L.A. Unified's director of school mental health, was expected to join a contingent of crisis managers in Santee this week. The counselors are being organized by the U.S. Department of Education.

"You can't avoid all this tragedy, but we can really get on top of it," Los Angeles Unified Supt. Roy Romer said. 'We've got a zero-tolerance policy on weapons, obviously. But the most important thing is to get these kids who are alienated, isolated, really disturbed, and listen to them early."

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Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this story.

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