NORWALK - With the Parkland, Fla., high school massacre still fresh in memory, local officials are working to keep students and their families calm.
It has been around two weeks since 17 students and teachers were shot and killed at Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.
Since the shooting, parents of students at area schools have voiced concerns over the preparedness of students and staff in the event that such a tragedy occurs locally. Those worries were only intensified by several recent threats to Downey and Norwalk campuses.
In response to the concern, Downey Unified School District called parents over the weekend and released a press release, saying in part:
“We know the tragedy that took place in Florida has truly been an emotional event for us all. It has affected us in Downey Unified as well as school districts across the nation.
“We want to reassure you that with any potential instances, we work in close partnership with local law enforcement to fully research and investigate the circumstances. If there is ever a situation when there is a credible threat, we will notify you immediately.
“Unfortunately, since the tragic incident in Florida, there have been numerous instances of young people in the US making inappropriate comments, several even in Downey Unified. Please be assured, we do not take any of these instances lightly; we partner with local law enforcement, and thoroughly research and investigate each to establish the validity of every occurrence brought to our attention.
“Fortunately, none of the instances in our district have been deemed credible.”
Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District has also had its share of concerns and issues with threats.
At a press conference Feb. 21, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell addressed a recently thwarted threat at El Camino High School that led to the arrest of a student.
“Just two days after 17 people were killed in the Florida school shooting, security officer Marino Chavez, who works at El Camino High School…overheard a 17-year-old student say that he was going to shoot up the school sometime in the next three weeks,” said McDonnell.
“Thanks to the outreach efforts of our Norwalk station, Mr. Chavez and our deputies worked together to assess the situation.
“Deputies learned that the 17-year-old had an extensive discipline history at the school. They also learned that a Smith and Wesson semiautomatic weapon was registered to his address.”
McDonnell added that detectives served a searched warrant at the student’s Norwalk home, where they found a cache of ordnance, including two AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, two pistols, 90 high-capacity magazines, and ammunition.
The student was detained for making criminal threats but has not been charged, according to the Whittier Daily News. However, his older brother, 28-year-old U.S. Army veteran Daniel Eriberto Barcenas was charged with a misdemeanor count of possession of an assault weapon.
Barcenas pleaded not guilty during his arraignment at Bellflower Superior Court. He faces a sentence of 364 days in county jail if convicted.
Meanwhile, the city of Norwalk said it is accelerating its multi-faceted school safety plan.
“This plan will include strengthening of collaborative efforts by the city’s Public Safety Department, Norwalk Sheriff’s Station, the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, the District’s safety officers and the City of La Mirada,” Norwalk officials said in a statement.
“This partnership will focus on joining school security, school principals and counselors to identify adverse and or aggressive behavior at its earliest stage. The team will work together to focus on the root causes of the behavior and employ a team approach to assist the student and his or her family in redirecting the behavior.”
Cerritos College President Jose Fierro responded to a different threat over the weekend, sending out a safety alert citing a “social media discussion about an unconfirmed report of an unspecified threat to a school in Norwalk.”
“We have learned since then that the Norwalk’s Sherriff’s Department has identified and contacted the source responsible for the social media post and have ruled that the threat is not credible,” Fierro said.
The statement added that there had not been a specific threat against the college. Still, campus police presence was increased throughout the day Monday.
Downey public schools participate in drills each year to prepare for an active shooter, although a DUSD spokesperson said that the district refrains from calling them “active shooter drills” – opting instead for the term “intruder drills” – to not frighten students and “prepare as calmly as possible.”
Emergency lockdown and intruder drills have already occurred at all schools this year, with a second planned for the upcoming semester, said the spokesperson, Ashley Greaney.
DUSD is also using Measure O funds, the school improvement bond passed by voters in November 2014, to “tighten up” campus security, Greaney said.
These moves include fencing and exterior upgrades, camera installations at select locations and, specifically to Stauffer Middle School, the relocation of the administration building to the front of the school so that access to the campus can only be obtained through the main office.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn acted on the recent tragedy by proposing to expand LA County’s School Threat Assessment Response Team (START), a coalition of principals, counselors, school security officers, and parents worried about students who have talked about suicide, exhibited concerning behavior, or made threats.
After receiving a credible threat, START team members visit the school, evaluate the student, and go to the student’s home. In most cases, START can recommend counseling. In more serious cases the student might be put on a 72-hour-hold or arrested if a crime has been committed.
On average, the team fields about 15 phone calls per week. Last week, they responded to 63 calls of potential threats.
“In a county of over 10 million residents, it is clear we need more than 10 people working on this issue,” said Hahn. “We need to invest in this team and give them the resources they need to take every single threat seriously because our children’s lives are at stake.”
Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to examine ways to expand the program.