Officials, parents exchange views at school safety forum

Dr. Sherry Kropp, superintendent, Los Alamitos Unified School District. File photo

The most recent school shooting that killed 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida has prompted Los Alamitos Unified School District to reexamine its security priorities, as many vocal parents peppered a McGaugh Elementary School panel with pointed security questions on Thursday.

Meanwhile, parents attending this school safety town hall seemed to be in a get-tough mood, urging the board to expedite fencing, lock the gates, do more background checks and increase patrols.

“We’ve got a lot to figure out in a hurry,” said Dr. Sherry Kropp, whose hallmark thus far has been her willingness to listen to parents and staff, as parents had some sharp questions for the panel.

During the course of the meeting, parents expressed concern about the potential of an active shooter, but many also cited recent incidents of intruders to suggest they want measures that will also protect their elementary school students from sexual predators, cyber and personal bullying.

In addition to Kropp, Los Al Unified board president Dr. Jeffrey Barke, board vice president Diana Hill, Principal Joni Ellis, Assistant Principal Teri Malpass, Seal Beach Police Chief Joe Miller, Commander Phil Gonshak and Director of Safety and Personnel Services Chris Vlasic appeared before the town hall.

McGaugh Principal Joni Ellis gave parents a quick overview of safety precautions already taken at the elementary facility. Ellis reported on a meeting held a week earlier with law enforcement authorities, the FBI and the Seal Beach Police Department to better understand active shooter protocols and other issues related to school safety. The meeting also pointed out the need for better integration of communications between the school and police.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our schools,” said Barke. He compared today’s security problems to the tragedy of fires in schools fifty years ago. After an intense focus on school safety then, he said, not a single student has been lost to a fire since. “You couldn’t burn the seats you’re sitting in if you tried,” he added.

“This is not an easy conversation,” admitted Hill, but “a really important one.” Hill said the board began to take “extra measures” five years ago, bringing in “experts to help” the board make schools safe.

Kropp said the district staff has been implementing the school safety priorities established by the experts which included fencing, then campus supervisors and then cameras in the schools, in that order.

“We do have this Mayberry (by the Sea) idea here,” said Kropp, who noted that she received numerous complaints when the board began putting up fencing around schools five years ago.

Granted, she said, there were fewer complaints by the time the board started fencing the second school but added “it just shows you how much things have changed.”

Chris Vlasic, director of Safety and Personnel Services, listed for the audience a host of security related services already or soon to be available throughout the schools, including a new Lockdown Notification System, wherein any qualified teacher or administrator can lock down classrooms using internet technology from their cellphones and have the alerts appear throughout campus on phones and other devices.

He said the district was studying and will soon implement violent intruder protocols. Vlasic said many items from a District Task Force on safety have already been implemented, including social media awareness training, cyberbullying prevention, substance abuse prevention and a prescription drug cleanup at which under federal drug enforcement supervision the system flushes “hundreds of pounds” of unused drugs from the community.

He said violence prevention programs are in place as well, saying “we take every threat seriously.”

“We are increasing our mental health support services,” said Vlasic, serving kids in crisis K-12.”

Kropp interjected that board has adopted a very effective mental health protocol.

Finally, Vlasic told the parents that the Los Al Unified District was in the process of implementing many of the “physical security” recommendations, which included the fencing, which are being constructed in the order of high schools, middle schools then elementary schools.

It didn’t take parents long to let the officials know they wanted action. During the second hour of the discussion, parents peppered officials with tough questions that included specificity. They wanted to know exact schedules of the gate openings, said they wanted fewer open gates, background checks for every district worker, volunteer and anyone regularly allowed on campus.  School officials tried to officiate and mitigate the parental concern, saying some gates may have to remain open to satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Parents quickly and overwhelmingly let the officials know they (the parents attending) would be willing to contribute to a dedicated fund to better protect the school. And the parents voiced even louder support for bringing cameras to the schools. Kropp said cameras were recently installed in Los Al High School and although planned for all schools, they are lower on the priority list.

Quickly recognizing the broad-based support she was hearing from parents, Kropp said while the Los Al District board did not have “unlimited funds,” there were ways to shift priorities. She praised the parents for voicing their views on school safety and suggested the board would take a look at the possibility of moving in installation of cameras in elementary schools up on their overall priority list.  Finally, Kropp said the district will meet with Ellis and the board to fashion the most feasible solutions based on the input from the parents and officials expressed throughout the evening. For sure, the open facilities, recreation and otherwise, which are now used by the community will likely now be restricted to off hours or perhaps even to only weekends. Parents attending the town hall not only expressed support for the tighter controls, but many said they “cannot happen soon enough.”

Editor’s note: Comments from parents were summarized because they were not required to identify themselves before asking questions or making comments.

Officials, parents exchange views at school safety forum