School resource officer Christina Marshall at Santa Barbara High School
Paul Wellman

At a joint meeting of the Santa Barbara school board and City Council two weeks ago, Mayor Helene Schneider asked Marlin Sumpter, assistant superintendent of pupil services, what sort of safety equipment he would like were funding not an issue. Video cameras, answered Sumpter, specifically to survey entrances, exits, restrooms, and parking lots.

On April 10, Representative Lois Capps introduced a bill that could provide schools a bit of help in buying such equipment. As described in a statement from Capps’s office, the School Safety Enhancement Act, or HR1470, would “reauthorize the Secure Our Schools Grant program at $40 million per year for 10 years. Federal grant funding would be matched 50/50 with state or local government funds and would be administered by the Office of Community Oriented Policing in the Department of Justice. The bill also establishes an interagency task force between the Departments of Justice and Education to develop a set of school safety guidelines in conjunction with parent, teacher and stakeholder input.”

Similar language was included in the gun violence bill that died an ignominious death on the Senate floor on April 17. And while lawmakers may not have the stomach to expand background checks, the limited goal of giving schools a hand in securing their campuses may garner a bit more support. The Secure Our Schools program, created in the wake of the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, has been a popular program that received more applications than it could fund every year.

Whether any of that federal money makes its way to the South Coast is an open question. The Santa Barbara school district already has a $300 million wish list of repairs and improvements that includes such basic necessities as roofs. But facilities manager David Hetyonk said he would like to replace fencing, which would be covered under Capps’s bill along with items like lighting and reinforced doors. Because school architecture in coastal California takes advantage of the temperate climate, combining indoor and outdoor spaces, campuses are difficult to confine. But the district is attempting to narrow entry points via fencing.

And Hetyonk is already in the midst of changing knobs on classroom doors so they can all be locked from the inside. The last elementary school — Roosevelt — is almost complete. Locks at the secondary schools will be swapped as well.

These retrofits are a direct response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 students and six teachers were murdered by a lone gunman. Since then, the Santa Barbara Police Department has conducted walkthroughs of all the schools in the city and updated the campus maps that the police keep in all cruisers. Visitors to schools must now wear badges, and there are noticeably more signs on campuses directing them to check in at the office.

While police officers and school officials admit that a motivated evildoer is probably not going to stop by the front office to check in, SBPD Lieutenant Brent Mandrell, who has coordinated with the schools, said, “any security measure, no matter how small it is, it’s always better to do something rather than nothing.”

Mandrell has advised the schools that in a worst-case scenario, staff should think of options in terms of “run, hide, or fight.” Whereas school protocol has historically suggested teachers lock their doors and shelter in place, that might not be the safest scenario.

If a gunman makes it onto campus, said Mandrell, “each situation is different. There are no set rules of black and white. You may have the opportunity to run away, so that may be the best option. You might have the opportunity to lock the room. If someone is in your classroom … you might make the decision to fight.”

School resource officer Christina Marshall, the thin blue line between city schools and criminal activity, agreed with Sumpter that cameras on campus “would be amazing.” But at the top of her shopping list would simply be more classroom teachers and campus security staff. A higher adult-to-student ratio would not only improve education but also on-campus behavior, she said. Meanwhile, calls-for-service records made available by the police reveal that serious incidents at schools are few and far in between. There were reports of shots fired at Santa Barbara High School (SBHS) in August and a call for “weapon brandishing” in September 2010. This past fall, Marshall also arrested a former SBHS student who was on campus with drugs and a knife, challenging staff to fight. As far as crime goes, though, she deals with theft and drugs much more than violence.

Based at SBHS, Marshall serves all the city’s secondary schools. The Sheriff’s Department provides two deputies, George Hedricks and Dan Nelson, who work at Dos Pueblos and San Marcos High Schools, respectively, while splitting duty at Goleta Valley Junior High. They told The Santa Barbara Independent that their day-to-day functions have not changed since the Newtown shootings. While the Connecticut tragedy has raised awareness about school safety, rekindled communication between schools and law enforcement, and increased vigilance, students likely face more imminent danger on their way to school than they do on school grounds. At the same meeting where Sumpter updated the City Council on school safety measures, Browning Allen, city transportation manager, updated the school board on some of the treacherous crosswalks on the Eastside.


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