Plumas Unified School District held a community forum concerning school safety on March 7 at Portola Junior-Senior High School, with a full house in attendance.
The forum was held in the wake of threats to school safety around the country, with the panel comprised of Brian Sheridan, vice principal at C. Roy Carmichael Elementary School and Portola Junior/Senior High School; Melissa Leal, CRC principal; Sara Sheridan, PJSHS principal; Sheriff Greg Hagwood; District Attorney Dave Hollister; and Frank Carey, PUSD safety officer.
PUSD Superintendent Terry Oestreich also attended, opening the forum with thanks to all who had made the effort to attend.
Sheridan began by noting that it was an unfortunate reality that there were recent concerns regarding school safety at PJSHS, and that the purpose of the forum was to provide information to the community and answer questions from concerned parents.
Carey noted his long-time focus on school safety, which had intensified in the last couple of weeks. Carey explained that the doors at the schools are equipped with lock blocks, which are easily slid into place in the event of an emergency, and that perimeter doors at the high school are kept locked in an effort to reduce entry points to the school.
Carey also noted that the high school’s camera system is being upgraded, and more cameras will be added. “We also participate in ALICE drills,” Carey stated. “We take the drills very seriously.”
ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate, and is the procedure followed by PUSD schools in the event of a potential active shooter on campus. “ALICE was put together by a retired law enforcement professional and is national protocol,” Carey said.
New alert system
Leal said CRC utilizes the shelter-in-place protocol, and is also being measured for new cameras. Carey then went on to explain that CRC would be the first school in the district to receive a new alert system, which will be installed to connect all classrooms and buildings on campus.
“The system is digital and wireless, with a battery backup, and will have a print-out board. Each staff member will have a panic button to wear, in addition to the required ID cards, and once activated, the system will send out a voice activated message to the entire campus regarding the location of the incident where the button was pushed,” Carey explained.
The system is also coming to PJSHS, making Portola the first community to acquire the technology. “This is four years of work coming to a head,” Carey noted.
Hagwood said there have been issues that have caused concern in local schools. “I have assigned a special investigator solely to the purpose of ‘cleaning house.’ We have a standing commitment to approach this issue with aggressiveness and seriousness,” he said.
Hagwood explained that school safety is his top priority, and emphasized that the issues at hand are taken extremely seriously, both professionally and personally. He also noted that every member of the PUSD staff had the phone number to reach the investigator, who would be available 24/7.
“We are taking every report with the utmost seriousness,” Hagwood said. “We are working closely with the district attorney, and we are going directly to the parents or caretakers of any students that are reported on.”
Hagwood went on to say, “We’re at a point right now where we have seen the deaths and injuries of students and teachers on a regular basis. Just today there was a shooting in Alabama. We are all hearing the students that survived the shooting in Florida, saying enough is enough, and I agree! It is completely unacceptable that a handful of people have the ability to turn a campus and a community on its ear.”
Hagwood then stated his firm, zero-tolerance approach to these behaviors, actions, and threats. “I’ve had enough,” Hagwood stated in steely tones. “Nothing strikes terror into the community like the thought that students may be harmed at school. They deserve to be safe, and this outrage needs to be stopped.”
Hagwood noted that there had been many suggestions on how to approach keeping schools safe, from arming teachers to having armed retired veterans on campus. “Teachers have pursued a career to teach,” Hagwood said. “Law enforcement professionals have pursued a career to protect, and never should the lines between the two become blurred. It’s a pathetic commentary on our society. We’ve really screwed things up.”
Hagwood said his goal is to prevent tragedy from ever reaching the schools, with prevention his priority, and he emphasized the working relationship between his department, the CHP, the schools and the district attorney’s office. “I want to make this perfectly clear,” Hagwood said, looking over his glasses at the room. “You are not going to come to our campuses and inflict harm on students and staff.”
Hagwood then emphasized the importance of communication in the efforts toward prevention, noting that far too often, he will hear about a problem after it has happened, and while confidentiality is important, nothing is more important than safety.
“If anyone sees anything, hears something, anything that doesn’t seem right, we need to know immediately, not later. We understand and respect confidentiality, but it comes second to safety,” Hagwood said. “You come to school to learn, not to raise hell.”
District attorney weighs in
District Attorney Hollister told the audience, “I am here to give support and listen to your concerns and ideas. We’re very fortunate in Plumas County to have the ability to react quickly, and have good relationships with law enforcement. The sheriff is spot on, and I want to add that when a report is made, we have prompt in-person follow-ups.”
Hollister also encouraged all to call Detective Hendrickson at the Sheriff’s Office if there is anything bothering anyone.
Hollister noted his appreciation of all the school site principals in the process of facilitating the important discussion of school safety.
One concerned parent asked if there was a training undertaken regarding school threat assessment, with Hagwood answering in the affirmative, noting the extensive active shooter training at all schools, as well as Feather River College, and also noted that the effort to prepare included county offices as well. Hollister added that the DA’s office deals with threat assessments on a daily basis.
Another parent queried Principal Sheridan on the recent rumored threat made against the high school, and asked why the students in question were not suspended, and why parents were only notified on Facebook.
Sheridan answered, “There was never any direct threat made to the school. I received information of concern and notified law enforcement and the deputy responded immediately. Students have a tendency to spread rumors, and in order to address those rumors, notification was released on social media as well as an emailed letter that went out to all parents that have maintained a working email with us.”
Leal also asked parents to please unblock the school messenger, as currently about 1/3 of the parents had it blocked. Leal noted the need for parents to subscribe to text and email updates to stay in close communication with the schools.
Sheridan asked all parents to ensure that they had their email addresses updated with the schools so that urgent information can be communicated efficiently.
“After the incident, I fielded phone calls, went to every classroom to discuss the rumors with the students, but I want to emphasize — there was never a direct threat and there was never a gun.”
Sheridan explained that if there had been a threat, students would have gone into immediate lockdown, and parents would have been notified immediately. “If anyone has questions, please call me directly,” Sheridan stated. “Safety is my first concern.”
Hagwood added, “There is a lot of ‘info’ out there, but we need to rely on the information from the school, rather than rumors. So much inaccurate information spreads very quickly and it is our responsibility to rely on the proper sources for information.”
Hollister reemphasized that there had been no direct threats made in any incident in the last three weeks, saying, “It speaks well to our community that people are communicating when something doesn’t look right and the follow up with PCSD has been fantastic.”
Mental health role
Hagwood then went on to note the relationship between the mental and behavioral health services community and the law enforcement community, “The quality of the relationship is sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but prior difficulties would be petty to continue when it comes to situations like this. Behavioral Health is active in a variety of services, but it is not my arena. Yes, there is a working relationship, with a current united effort to do the best we can.”
Hollister added that he had absolute confidence in Behavioral Health and that they would let law enforcement know of any potential threats.
Plumas County District 1 Supervisor Michael Sanchez was in attendance, and commented on his background in trauma medicine and that all of the local hospitals are in sync after each ALICE drill.
“The hospitals, REMSA, Care Flight — all in the medical community are prepared. When drills occur at the schools, the hospitals are ensuring that they have beds ready, blood and plasma available, and are fully geared up,” Sanchez said to the room. “We also have to consider the potential post-trauma for kids, if there is a loss of life, much counseling will be required. This is all being discussed with Behavioral Health.”
Sanchez also noted that he felt that there was a strong need to focus on the behavioral and mental health aspect of the problem, and noted the importance of keeping vigilant. “Make sure to report anything that doesn’t look right, don’t be scared to tell somebody,” he stressed, after recounting the past tragedy at Columbine. “Even a threat shakes people up. You’ve got to talk to your kids and tell them not to be scared. This is a situation that needs to be nipped in the bud and it starts at home.”
Approach to safety
Hagwood added that the Columbine incident ushered in a radical change in law enforcement response to active shooter situations. “The protocol today is very counter to human instinct,” he noted.
“Now, the protocol is to immediately neutralize any threat — don’t wait, attack. People react differently in the heat of an emergency, but protocol dictates that law enforcement jump in, even without a plan. Go in, address the threat, and neutralize it. It’s a key component to our training in Plumas County active shooter trainings.”
PJSHS Secretary Laury Riggins stated clearly that everyone on campus is expected to wear an ID badge or else they can expect a tackle in the hallways. “Please, please report to the office and check in if you are visiting the campus,” she stressed to the community. “We want to be able to identify everyone that is on the campus.”
Principal Leal noted that CRC has been a tricky challenge regarding enforcing entry points, with such a large, sprawling campus, and past allowances to parents on utilizing various access points to the school.
Another local spoke on his appreciation and applause for all that had been stated thus far during the forum, with complete confidence in Sheridan, and applauded the proactive approach to improving school protocol.
The citizen then noted that in his view, there is a common denominator in school shootings — the fact that they are declared gun free zones. “I do believe that armed personnel could have saved some,” the citizen commented in regards to past shootings. “Is there any consideration being made to having armed resource officers on campus? And if not, why not?”
Hagwood took the opportunity to answer the question thoughtfully, “There is a place for armed personnel at our schools and it is a very important consideration. We have to think about whom those people would be. Ideally, a sheriff’s deputy in uniform. The entire world needs to understand that we have armed personnel at these schools and will stop you in any way necessary. I want to blast this message loud and clear to all — raise a ruckus and we will pull out a big hammer and stop it.”
Hagwood asserted that the idea of arming school staff was a complicated one and reemphasized that ideally law enforcement officers should be on site. “Is it cheap? No. This will be very much based on the decisions to be made by the school board and administration.”
Joleen Cline, school board trustee for Portola, noted that there were armed guards present at the school attended by her child in Reno and that she was in full support of the idea. “It really comes down to a need for the right person for the job — someone trained to head towards danger,” Cline said. “The Sheriff’s Office needs increased funding and they are the experts. It’s going to take money.”
When the panel was asked to elucidate further on who would make that ultimate decision, Hagwood answered that an essential consensus was needed between the sheriff’s office, site administrators and staff.
“We want a reasoned, responsible deployment of resources,” Hagwood went on. “We don’t want an armed occupation of the schools.”
Hagwood went on to note that it would take a combined commitment between the school district, county and community to address the issue as effectively and quickly as possible. Sanchez stated that on record, he was 100 percent for the idea.
Oestreich then expressed her agreement in continuing meetings with the Board of Governors and various agency leaders, stating that the evening’s forum was a great start.
One local queried the panel as to the potential for a K-9 unit, and Hagwood laughed, explaining that he had attempted such an effort in the past, leading to a lawsuit brought against him in the federal courts. “I am open to the idea, with the right person and the right circumstances, involved with the K-9,” he said.
Sanchez asked about safety sanitation checks or potential locker sweeps at school campuses. Sheridan answered that with reasonable suspicion, has asked a student to accompany herself and another staff member to a room to empty out a backpack or locker. “It does happen occasionally,” Sheridan said.
Hagwood noted that one example of preventative safety was clearly practiced at the courthouse in Quincy, with metal detectors and one point of entrance. “These are things to look at to send a clear message — there is no tolerance for guns or knives.”
Another concerned parent asked Sheridan what was being done to help keep the students comfortable with keeping open lines of communication.
Sheridan said all students have been informed of the many options they have to report anything worrisome or suspicious, whether that be through any school staff member, or via email or even a note dropped off with the school secretary. “We are very discreet, and encourage students to talk with us in an anonymous fashion,” Sheridan emphasized.
Another concerned parent noted, “I agree 100 percent with what Sheriff Hagwood had to say regarding a zero tolerance policy at our schools, and I also support having a deputy present at each school on a daily basis. However, having more meetings to “discuss these possibilities” is unacceptable — we need immediate action! Are we really going to wait around until something bad actually happens? I understand that there are funding issues, but in the mean time, I for one, do not feel any safer taking my children to school.”
Another local encouraged law enforcement to continue to be a regular presence on school campuses, with Leal adding that people such as Officer Preston stop by regularly to do things like read to the second grade class.
“Our goal is to create a strong relationship between the schools and law enforcement. We would like to see law enforcement on campus at least once at week and we generally do.”
Parents also asked questions about who should be contacted with information on potential threats, especially after school hours and on weekends.
Sheridan said she is available at any time to address concerns. Leal agreed with Sheridan.
Hagwood added that there has been a dispatcher in his office 24/7 for the last 30 years and that, if nothing else, citizens can dial 911, as that will reach the same dispatcher as the business line.
Another local asked about what would occur if an event took place with officers out of the area, with a longer potential response time.
Hagwood noted that the department was slowly getting better on staffing, and that he can send out an emergency call to all officers on and off duty at any time, with an average response time leading to an officer en route within three minutes of a call.
The idea of fencing in the school campuses was also brought up, with Leal stating again that CRC needed to address the need for a single point of entry. Sheridan said that the conversation about single entry access was also open at PJSHS.
Cline said, “We have to take a look at the Measure B funds, and our options. It would be very expensive, but we may need to shift our priorities. The visual of a fence is important and the schools are wide open. We fence in anything that we hold dear, why not our schools?”
Another local asked the panel what steps would be needed to put the discussed security at school sites and what parents can do to support the effort and move forward expediently.
Oestreich stated that there would be a meeting with the board where talks would begin on resource allocation. She said, “We want our agency leaders to meet and to have consistent, clear communication. The final step would be another community forum.”
Portola City Council member Bill Powers, also a staff member at PJSHS, noted the need to have active supervision, get to know all of the students on campus and celebrate positive behavior.
“I love seeing the youth ministries here,” Powers said to the room. “We need to have a drop-in center for kids that may be feeling down, off of school campus. We are of a size in our community to be able to connect with every kid we’ve got, on multiple levels.”
Carey then notified the room that the upgrades to CRC should be completed by mid-April, with the system for PJSHS installed shortly after.
Sheridan discussed the need to step up vigilance in the locker rooms, with a parent expressing concerns over stories brought home by her children regarding contraband and inappropriate behavior.
“In terms of discipline, students grades three through 12 receive one to three days of suspension if a viable report is made and confirmed,” Sheridan noted, in response to a question on consequences for threats made by students. “We have a zero tolerance policy.”
With a final reminder for all parents to update contact information with the schools, which can be done on the Parent Portal, the forum closed, with Sheridan thanking the room for two hours of their time, and a repeated offer to the community to contact her at any time with questions or concerns.
Other safety forums
Quincy: was held March 13
Chester: Tuesday, March 20, at 6 p.m. in the Chester High library
Greenville: Thursday, March 22, at 6 p.m. in the Greenville High library