In the wake of last December’s tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Galt Joint Union Elementary School District may have been the first in California to offer gun safety training for its teachers and other staff.
The slaying a year ago today of 20 first-graders and six adults by gunman Adam Lanza, 20, at Sandy Hook Elementary School prompted a conversation between Superintendent Karen Schauer and Police Chief William Bowen. It was he who mentioned offering a gun safety course to district employees.
At the time, neither the California Police Officers Association nor the California Police Chiefs Association had heard of any other communities offering such trainings.
When Schauer spoke to employees about the training possibility, she said there was strong interest.
“I believe that this voluntary firearms opportunity for school employees was needed, because after the Sandy Hook incident, our staff desired information to be better prepared to identify or handle firearms on school grounds,” she said Friday.
The three-hour voluntary gun safety and awareness course held last spring covered a variety of issues, including training school employees to use and recognize different types of guns so they could more accurately inform law enforcement authorities should the need arise.
In the event of an emergency, an accurate description of the weapon helps officers better plan their response. For example, a revolver typically hold six rounds of ammunition, while a semi-automatic firearm can hold up to 15 rounds, Bowen said.
Many of the 140 participants in the gun safety had little or no background handling firearms, Schauer said.
Under the direction of now-retired Galt Police Lt. Jim Uptegrove, school staff discussed fighting a shooter should they choose to do so, or if they could not run or hide. They also discussed how to handle a gun so that if there was a situation where a gun was dropped, employees would know how to safely pick it up.
In addition, staff had the chance to use the police department’s shooting range.
“It was informative and presented by officers with sensitivity, expertise and understanding given the range of participating employees,” said Schauer, who took part in the training.
Greer Elementary Principal Emily Peckham also participated. She said she learned how to handle a weapon safely and to recognize different types of weapons, and she increased her awareness of gun safety.
“Teachers and staff felt empowered to know more about specific safety procedures — for example, how to ensure that a safety catch mechanism is used in order to help prevent the accidental discharge of a gun,” she said.
Fifty Galt Joint Union High School District employees also attended the training.
Lodi Unified School District has also taken steps to ensure safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.
“People are more aware of safety issues at schools now,” Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer said. “And just the feeling that this could have happened anywhere is still on many of their minds.”
Since the shooting, the district has taken an assessment of all 55 of its campuses, and asked the Lodi Police Department to take its own survey of district sites. Assessments included location and number of exits at each site, and easy accessibility for local law enforcement officers, according to Nichols-Washer.
“We’re really taking a look at the physical buildings within the district, to look at how to improve overall safety,” she said.
Safety drills are now commonplace
In April, Galt High School students participated in an active shooter exercise, where a volunteer shot blanks at anyone who crossed his path.
Galt police officers responded, knowing it was a drill, but not knowing where the “shooter” was or even if there was only one. They took down the “shooter” and cleared the scene for emergency medical response in a matter of minutes.
The drill was sponsored by Galt High School, using guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Drill and Evaluation Program. It had been in the works for a year, according to Principal Maria Orr.
“As a community and as a nation we strive to ensure that our students are safe and comfortable at school,” she said Friday. “We take student safety very seriously. As a result, we have a process in place for teachers, students and staff in case of an emergency.”
Lodi Unified also held more emergency drills during the school year. Lodi police have visited several campuses to help conduct active shooter drills, Nichols-Washer said.
The large districts aren’t the only ones thinking of student safety.
Arcohe School in Herald did not add additional drills, as they already hold intruder on-campus drills quarterly, said Superintendent Jim Shock, who attended the Galt High School exercise.
However, the one-school district did hold two staff meetings to review safety procedures, and made several changes. It is also in the process of rewriting its comprehensive school safety plan — a task that Shock said needed to be done anyway, but the Newtown tragedy sped up the process.
“While there are no guarantees and we are limited in the variables we can control, we are confident that our students and staff are better prepared and therefore safer than they were prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy,” he said this week.
Oak View School in Acampo spent about $7,000 making safety improvements to its campus in the last year, including upgrading and adding additional video surveillance equipment around the entire campus, installing door blocks on all classroom doors, tinting office windows and door windows on all classrooms, and upgrading and expanding the intercom system to reach all buildings and areas on campus, Superintendent Beverly Boone said.
“We routinely hold classroom lockdown drills, but this year we added an emergency drill that had the entire student body meet in one location,” she said, adding this was practiced not only for a possible campus intruder, but for weather emergencies as well.
The district’s safety plan is required to be updated annually by March 1, but the timeline was moved up in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting and approved by the school board in August, so that it was ready to go for the current school year.
Preparation pays off
Sgt. Robert Di Piero at San Joaquin Delta College said the college’s police department has been conducting active shooter drills and other safety training for several years — long before Newtown.
In addition, the department’s campus safety officers provide students, faculty and administration with basic crime prevention tips, he said. Those tips include being aware of surroundings and walking in groups.
Students and school employees are also provided with a list of numbers, including an anonymous tip line, to call if they see any suspicious people or activities on campus.
Delta College patrol cars are equipped with ballistic shields should an incident like Sandy Hook arise on campus, Di Piero said, and the department has always had a good working relationship with outside agencies, such as the Stockton Police Department and San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department.
The success of that working relationship showed during a shooting at the campus’ entrance on Nov. 27, Di Piero said.
In that incident, a 27-year-old man began arguing with three men and was shot. The suspects fled across the street to Weberstown Mall, where they were eventually arrested by Stockton Police.
Di Piero said officers from the college, Stockton and Sheriff’s departments were on the scene within minutes.
“There’s really no force field to keep violence from stopping at the roadway,” he said. “You never know where something (like Sandy Hook) could happen, like at a mall, a school or public office. We, as officers, just have to train and train, and develop good working relationships with each other and the communities we serve.”
‘Not going to forget’
The Lodi Police Foundation has begun a campaign to purchase a Ballistics Armored Tactical Transport, or BATT, in case an incident like the Sandy Hook shooting ever occurs in Lodi.
Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms said the vehicle could cost as much as $200,000, and there isn’t enough in the city’s General Fund at the moment to purchase the truck.
According to the Armored Group, LLC, the company that designs BATTs, the vehicle can stop .50-caliber rounds and include a blast mitigating floor, internal armored firewall, rifle-rated roof protection, and an aggressive, fully armored hood clip.
In addition, the BATT can seat up to 12 officers in full gear and achieve speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.
Once funds are raised for the vehicle, the police foundation will offer a grant to City of Lodi, which will then be able to place an order. Depending on when funds are raised and the order placed, it could take as much as three months for the police department to receive the BATT, Helms said.
Meanwhile, Newtown will stay on the collective minds of Lodi Unified officials, according to Nichols-Washer.
“There are going to be a lot of things you see in the news and you kind of forget about after awhile,” she said. “But I think this is going to be one of the things people aren’t going to forget, given what we (at the district) do for a living.”