Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a question has been asked over and over: Would schools be safer and better prepared to defend against a live shooter if armed guards were assigned to monitor each campus?
In Lodi, school resource officers fill that role. But that amounts to much more than an able body with a weapon. School administrators say the connection these officers build with their students acts as a better preventative tactic than anything else.
“Nobody has come yelling at me about armed guards,” said Tokay High School Principal Erik Sandstrom. “Would it really be better if our campus supervisors were armed? I don’t think so. Our SROs do a great job.”
Schools can run drills and practice for active shooters as often as is needed. But the best defense is found in the campus supervisors who know the school grounds, and trained police officers with a handgun at the ready who are willing to work with kids to prevent crimes.
The setup is not perfect, but it has worked so far. There has never been a fatal shooting at a Lodi school.
These officers deal with all runaway cases, school disturbances and campus crimes ranging from vandalism to bringing a knife to school, said Sgt. David Griffin, who oversees the SROs. They also attend disciplinary hearings.
If a problem involves a school-aged child and calls for an officer, an SRO handles it.
“They can talk to the friends, the teachers. It’s much easier for them to handle these types of cases,” said Griffin.
When the program is fully staffed, each high school and middle school in town has their own officer. Two are paid for by the Lodi Police, while Lodi Unified foots the bill for the other two. Currently, the program has three officers.
Griffin said the program has run for 15 years, starting at just the high schools. The officers sit in on school meetings and communicate with school staff so the primary responders are all on the same page.
When something goes wrong, the school knows exactly who to call.
“Those are officers who find it to be a rewarding experience. You have to be a little more patient to deal with only kids all day,” said Griffin.
The three members of the Lodi Police Department are assigned to cover a handful of schools each. Officer Robert Rench is stationed at Tokay High School, and is on call for four nearby elementary schools. When Millswood or Lodi middle schools need an officer, they call on Officer Jim Pendergast, who also works with seven elementary schools. Officer Ryan Holz has been assigned to Lodi High School since 2009, and covers Liberty High School, Vinewood Elementary School and Needham School.
“When you’re on patrol, you don’t get to know the kids that well. This way I’m able to spend more time with them, trying to help them if they have problems,” Holz said.
Kids ask Holz for advice about bullying and harassment. They even quiz him on driving laws as they prepare to test for their own licenses.
“I’ve had arrests, if kids had a knife or stun gun at school or some kind of weapon. I haven’t had any bomb scares at my school yet. Just normal stuff. Kids have marijuana, kids get in fights,” he said.
His day-to-day work may be normal, but Holz is ready for the unusual or an emergency.
Each SRO carries a .40-caliber Glock handgun, along with pepper spray and a baton. Each item requires its own training regimen. But in the trunk of the school officer’s patrol car is an AR-15 rifle and a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds. Both are locked up.
Officers train twice a year with the rifle and four times a year with the handgun.
It is not a perfect situation. The program is currently understaffed, so officers are often called from one school to another when problems arise.
“There’s always just the feeling that there’s a lot to do, and a lot of kids to talk to,” said Holz.
Are armed guards the answer?
Lodi school principals say the SRO program is a benefit to their schools, and better than hiring an armed guard.
Millswood Middle School Principal Sheree Flemmer agrees that SROs are the best defense for her school.
“Personally, I don’t think we can create fortresses out of our schools. If so, why would we stop at the schools? Why wouldn’t we want armed guards everywhere our children go — the movie theaters, the parks, the churches? Truth is, we can’t put our kids in a bubble or give them body guards to protect them from all the evils of the world and still allow them to have a sense of a normal life,” she said.
Instead, parents and teachers have to focus on teaching children that the incidences like Sandy Hook are the exception, not the norm, Flemmer said.
Scott McGregor, principal at Lodi Middle School, repeated the praises of the SRO program.
“Though they are not present 100 percent of the time, the Lodi Police Department does an excellent job of meeting our needs and having officers present at our schools on a regular basis. I believe it is important for our school community to work together to communicate any information or suspicious behavior so we can act appropriately to keep our school safe,” he said.
Superintendent of Elementary Education Catherine Pennington said hiring armed guards isn’t proven to be the right solution.
“One person, armed, can’t hold up against the situations we’ve seen recently. They may act as a deterrent, but the person we saw in Connecticut was much better armed,” said Pennington.
Lodi High School Principal Bob Lofsted said the expansive layout of a high school needs dedicated monitoring.
“High schools are basically like a little city. Having an armed policeman here makes total sense. We would be very concerned if that program went away,” said Lofsted.
But adding armed guards doesn’t necessarily improve the situation.
“I don’t think any school would complain about that, but the logistics of it are boggling,” he said.
School board president Ralph Womack spent his career on the Stockton Police force, so he is familiar with the close relationship between schools and police.
“People have a short memory sometimes. When something happens, we scramble around, thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Once that passes, the human tendency is to go back to routine daily business,” he said. “The weak point in a school’s defense is complacency, to not realize it could happen anywhere.”
Womack recommends a combination of well-trained school staff, police officers and coordinated planning to defend schools against shooters.
“We need to have a sense of urgency without panic. Arm teachers? Absolutely not. That’s an overreaction. I don’t think teachers in general are going to want to be packing a gun. An armed guard at every door? That’s an overreaction, too,” he said.
How to keep schools safe
A better use of resources is to look at points of access at schools, according to Lodi Unified superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer. Some schools are very old. They were designed years ago when some of these issues weren’t on anyone’s radar screen, said Nichols-Washer.
Nichols-Washer’s staff is looking at fences and low walls, how offices are set up, and the integrity of doors.
Another tactic is to make sure all visitors and parents check in at the front office. Each principal interviewed said that was the best way to track strangers on-campus.
In most of the shootings, Lofsted said, there is a stranger coming onto campus, or a student who has hung back and is arriving late to school. To combat that, Lodi and Tokay high schools’ campus security puts a heavy focus on the perimeter of each school zone.
At Lodi High, all classroom doors now lock from the inside. A video surveillance system will go online in a matter of weeks. At Tokay, new fences meant to combat vandalism will also help funnel campus visitors to the school office to sign in.
“When anybody is entering the campus, someone should have eyes on them. Is there something suspicious about them? Did they sign in? If something seems off, the staff need to report it. Don’t assume the person should be there,” said Womack.
That’s the job of the five campus supervisors employed at each school. They are on the front lines to check on visitors, monitor students at lunch and patrol the hallways between classes. If something is going on, they know.
“Campus supervisors are invaluable. If we can get the earliest eyes on potential trouble, it buys the school time to get into lockdown,” said Lofsted.
Sandstrom said the plans in place at his school would cover most of the dangers that arise on a high school campus, though it is impossible to plan for specifics.
At least once each quarter, every school has a fire drill or lockdown drill. Each one is an opportunity to practice closing the campus, clearing it out and communicating with the team at large in a moment of urgency.
As a team, Sandstrom said the administrators debrief the routes and areas each one checks.
Every few years, officers from Lodi or even the county come to local campuses to practice drills.
Officers with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office gave Lodi High staff an update Wednesday on how law enforcement is trained to respond to active shooters, so the school can be ready to stay out of the way of operations.
Last year, an active shooter simulation was held at Lodi High. Police officers practice entering the school, searching for a suspect and taking control of the situation while teachers and students are on campus. Tokay High has held similar training. Five years ago, a SWAT team walked the campus to be familiar with it.
“If there is an issue, I want more responders to know the area,” said Sandstrom.
Similar updates are happening in Galt schools, who have one SRO for both districts.
Karen Schauer, superintendent for the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District, said Galt police drove by the schools a few more times in the weeks following the Connecticut shooting to increase their presence.
Matthew Roberts, superintendent for Galt Joint Union High School District, says the schools have a close relationship with the Galt Police Department and the city to manage emergencies. Each high school has two campus security staff. An active shooter drill is planned for the spring.
“Events like this reinforces our vigilance. A safety plan is only as good as you practice it,” he said.