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Grossmont school officials share lessons learned when tragedy struck twice

May 17, 2001|By LAURA MACKENZIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Grossmont Union School District administrators addressed the Imperial County School Boards' Association and law enforcement officers at a dinner Wednesday at the Calexico Senior Center.

The topic under discussion was the recent shootings at Santana and Granite Hills high schools.

Grossmont district Superintendent Granger Ward, Assistant Superintendent Warren Williams, district psychologist Bob McGlenn and Community Resource Coordinator Mark Pettis shared the roles they played in contingency plan preparations, the immediate response to the shooting events and the aftermath of the events.

"We are constantly dealing with it, through graduation and all next year," said Ward of the after effects of the shootings.

"Were we prepared? On paper, yes; emotionally, no. We were prepared on paper, but emotionally, no one planned on using that stuff," Ward said.

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Ward and Williams spoke about the contingency plan in place for both schools prior to the shootings.

"Prior to Columbine we had lockdown plans on paper with three law enforcement agencies," Ward said.

Although the plan worked in many areas, Williams cautioned against schools adopting it.

"Don't cut and paste the plan to fit your school," he warned. "Do the plan so you'll be better prepared to handle it."

Williams said there are several ways to make a strong contingency plan.

He said a "tight collaboration" with local law enforcement is a key to handling an emergency.

"Know the names of the police officers who will be running the events," Williams said.

Other hints included a communication plan: "Who's going to talk to who? How are you going to communicate?" were questions Williams posed to the assembled administrators.

He said at Santana High in Santee students are allowed to have cell phones. However, when the shooting occurred the lines were jammed from all the calls being made on cell phones. No one could make calls, including the police.

He asked administrators if they had planned for that scenario and how they plan to communicate with law enforcement if lines are jammed.

"If you haven't taken the time to consider every alternative, you will run into chaos," Williams said.

He stressed schools have a different role when a crime occurs on campus. Law enforcement becomes in charge, not school officials.

"They're in charge because of the potential danger," said Ward, adding law enforcement "takes over the running of the school" when a crime occurs.

"As long as it is still a crime scene, the police are in charge," he said.

He spoke of the benefit of having a school resource police officer on campus.

"I am convinced we didn't lose lives at that school (Granite Hills in El Cajon) because of the resource officer," said Ward.

He added there was initially resistance to having a resource officer on the campus, "but not one person is complaining today."

The advantage to having a resource officer is the officer knows all about the campus as well as who are leaders among students and faculty.

Another advantage is school officials can familiarize themselves with police procedures.

McGlenn, the district psychologist, spoke about how his team dealt with the emotional trauma in the "aftershocks" of the events.

He stressed the importance of a plan for dealing emotionally with traumas.

"When the adrenaline is pumping out your ears … you need to go to a document because at that point you're not thinking, you're reacting," he said.

"An earthquake hit Santana at 9:22 and everything afterward has been to respond to that earthquake," said McGlenn of his responsibilities at the schools.

Pettis gave tips to the administrators on how to handle the media.

He and the other Grossmont officials encouraged giving brief press briefings as information comes in, but cautioned against letting the press have full access to students and faculty.

He reminded that "law enforcement is running the show," and warned against speculation.

"Identify spokespeople who would respond to questions, but limit it so (the media) aren't going to everybody," Pettis said.

The most important element stressed was the need to "revisit the plan."

"Keep looking at it, what worked well and what can work better," said Ward. "Each one has to be done individually. Law enforcement needs to be there step by step."

Painting numbers on top of school buildings and having accurate school maps were mentioned as key pieces to helping law enforcement.

The greatest "healing experience" for the students at Santana, said McGlenn, was when the school staged a memorial service for the students who had been killed.

"It was an excellent presentation," said Steve Cato, deputy principal in the discipline office at Brawley Union High School.

He added, "It gave us food for thought and posed questions to us. You can never be prepared enough and they reinforced it tonight."

Calling the meeting "very valuable," county Sheriff Harold Carter said he is in the process of obtaining aerial photos of all the schools and painting numbers atop 11 local school buildings.

Tommy Tunson, Calexico police chief, said numbered buildings and accurate maps could help police officers get to the threat quicker.

With numbered buildings, a police helicopter could hover over the campus and direct officers to the scene of the threat.

Tunson said he has been on every campus in Calexico and is working on contingency plans for each school.

Carter said, "Anything we can learn to deal with the situation, the better off we are."

Although the Grossmont administrators spoke here, they said they will not be traveling nationally to do so.

While they have given presentations in Los Angeles County, San Diego County and Imperial County, Grossmont officials said they will not do any more presentations after Wednesday night.

Staff Writer Laura MacKenzie can be reached at 337-3442.

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