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After Sandy Hook, schools start the year with heightened security

Students may find new fences, surveillance cameras and lockdown drills when they return to school this week. Local school districts made the changes with recent shootings in mind.

August 11, 2013|By Devin Kelly
  • Vahe Takhman hammers on a nearly completeed fence surrounding Monterey Highland Elementary School in Monterey Park. Some students and residents have objected to the fence but Alhambra School District officials say they believe it will make the campus safer.
Vahe Takhman hammers on a nearly completeed fence surrounding Monterey… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

As schools across Southern California prepare to open, teachers, parents and students will find increased security on their campuses, including surveillance cameras, more safety patrols, revised lockdown measures and fewer open gates.

After the Newtown, Conn., tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, where 20 students and six educators were killed, new safety efforts swept through school districts. President Obama called on administrators and law enforcement officials to reevaluate emergency procedures.

School boards across the nation reacted with increased spending on security and stronger efforts at elementary schools, in particular.

The approach changed from one of keeping students inside to keeping outsiders from entering.

"The idea of fencing was to keep kids from getting out, not to keep someone else from getting in," said Kirk Lewis, assistant superintendent of operations at Riverside Unified School District, where higher fences, among other measures, are being put into place.

In response to Newtown, school safety officers revised "active shooter" drills while keeping younger students in mind. Long Beach Unified School District held training with law enforcement at an elementary school and made a key change to lockdown policies: Depending on the situation, teachers can now direct students to leave the classroom in response to an assailant.

During the rampage at Sandy Hook, some students escaped out a back door, which may have been life-saving, said Tom Hickman, Long Beach Unified school safety chief.

The L.A. Unified School District also changed policies to give teachers options other than locking classroom doors. During recent training, school safety officials told teachers and administrators that they, too, can leave the classroom if that is the safest option.

For the upcoming year, the nation's second-largest school system also ramped up the number of campus security aides monitoring elementary schools, funneling $4.2 million into 1,000 new positions.

With school starting Tuesday for LAUSD, most of those positions have been filled, said Steve Zipperman, chief of the district's police department.

Some schools have taken more visible steps to protect campuses. At Monterey Highlands Elementary in Monterey Park, a nearly finished wrought-iron fence now stands around the school's perimeter, cutting across a hilltop and lining the black-top.

Until this summer, Monterey Highlands, a K-8 school with about 880 students nestled in the hillside of a quiet residential neighborhood, was the only school without a fence in the Alhambra Unified School District.

In the last decade, administrators, teachers and parents debated whether to build one, but such a move never seemed necessary.

Last winter, shaken district leaders pointed to Newtown and other incidents to declare a fence at Monterey Highlands a priority. Sandy Hook wasn't the only red flag, officials said. Last fall, a man caused a disturbance when he entered several classrooms, leading administrators to call police.

"We just felt it was time," said Alhambra Unified Supt. Laura Tellez-Gagliano.

On a recent weekday morning, Principal Debbie Kotani strolled up the grassy slope to where the fence now stands. News of the Newtown shootings rattled Kotani, a new principal with just a year on the job.

On Thursday, the first day of school, staff members will be stationed before and after school at three main access points. The fence cost the district about $226,200 in construction bonds.

On Monday evening, Kotani will meet with parents to walk through the new safety procedures. Other examples of beefed-up security include a buzz-in system at the front office, a security door and camera surveillance — a system that is extending to the other 16 schools in the district within the next two months.

But although schools are taking new precautions, experts and safety officials say that it's impossible to guarantee the security of a campus. John Hudak, who researches gun control at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., said that even the finest security procedures can't necessarily deter someone with the intent to enter.

If you build a 10-foot fence, the expression goes, someone is going to find an 11-foot ladder.

Kotani and Tellez-Gagliano said they're aware of that.

"We can never promise anything," Kotani said. "But with a fence, it definitely provides a deterrent."

The fence provoked controversy among residents who said it detracts from the neighborhood and closes off recreational space. Some students said it creates a confined, hostile environment.

One incoming Monterey Highlands eighth-grader, Maia Wu, said at a June school board meeting that students "were in fear, because fear is how our school is run."

Opponents pointed to the security system in place at Sandy Hook, which included a locked front door, a buzz-in system and camera surveillance. All of it failed to stop Adam Lanza from shooting through the front entrance.

Still, administrators and others at districts around Southern California say they are putting in place new efforts designed to save lives if a tragedy like the one at Sandy Hook occurs.

"I think all of us would be neglecting our duty if we did not look at that tragedy and learn from it," Zipperman said.

devin.kelly@latimes.com

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