School safety panel features state and county leaders, kicks off OC conference

Safe Schools Conference organizer Dave Long (left) leads panel discussion with OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson and OC Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares

Former California Education Secretary Dave Long, left, leads a discussion on school safety with Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares convened Wednesday for a midday news conference to talk about their coordinated efforts to keep schools safe.

The session, rare for bringing together two county leaders and the state’s top schools chief, kicked off the three-day Safe Schools Conference, which is expected to bring more than 500 educators and law enforcement representatives to the Wyndham Hotel in Garden Grove this week. Through Friday, nearly 50 workshops will cover a raft of topics including campus violence, bullying, social media trends, human trafficking, gang intervention and substance abuse.

Torlakson, Hutchens and Mijares were scheduled to offer remarks during separate presentations throughout the conference. But the trio cast themselves as a united front Wednesday as they collectively discussed the state of school safety and fielded questions from local media. Here are some edited excerpts of their responses to the moderator and reporters.

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On top safety priorities:

Hutchens: “For me, the safety of our children from attack — from, say, an active shooter, some domestic incident that occurs on a school — is of utmost concern. But I’m also very concerned about cyber-bullying … something we did not experience as we grew up. We experienced bullying — I think that’s been around a long time. But this takes it to a new level. And of course, something that I have my officers working on is educating the community and our kids on the dangers of drugs.”

Torlakson: “California, I think, leads the way compared to many other states. But how can we really look at prevention — what to do beforehand, during the incident, how do we mitigate circumstances and, third, the aftermath? What happens after? How do we help a community, a school population, a faculty, parents, recover from a tragic incident? That was one area we’re going to be doing a survey, as a consequence of today’s meeting, of all the school districts in the state. (We will be) asking them to give us an update on how they’re doing with their school safety plans. When was the last time they updated them? And we had questions today about how do those plans integrate with other emergency response plans that schools and communities must have. So there’s a lot of homework there to be done.”

Mijares: “… And it’s the matter of being vigilant. Because we as human beings have an incredible capacity to deny reality. And even though we see these graphic situations that occur … such as Sandy Hook and others, you would think that would grip us and make us think about safety. But we still go on our way like it doesn’t exist, like there’s not a problem and that to me is a big problem. And I don’t want to create a neurosis, that’s not healthy. …  But I do think the small things are important — locking doors, making sure you know where your students are, who are they with, understanding the needs of our teachers and our principals, and really providing the assistance that they need.”

On effective practices:

Torlakson: “One of the programs that we’ve implemented … it’s going to have enormous positive consequences, and that is bringing back vocational education, or career technical education as it’s called these days. It’s working with employers, working with the community colleges and universities and creating a pipeline of success where students get excited about being in school, because there’s a purpose to their learning. The mathematics, the language arts relate to either medical sciences or engineering or aviation or law enforcement in the justice system. We’re finding the state graduation rate has come up to about 82 percent … but for career technical education courses, the graduation rate is more like 95 to 98 percent. Those students are turned on to learning, turned on to school, not dropping out.”

Tom Torlakson (left) and OC Superintendent Al Mijares discuss school safety issues during panel.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, left, and Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares address school safety at Wednesday’s news conference.

Mijares: “I’ll go back to one that the sheriff already mentioned and it’s cyberbullying. With all the advancements that we’re making technologically, devices that we hold in our hand, this matter of social media is powerful and it certainly shapes the norming of behavior in our schools. I think that being able to have a coalition across this great county, Orange County, it’s one of the largest counties in California, so to have a coalition that is focused on this matter of cyberbullying and how we can curb the violence that we sometimes see there. That’s one of the goals that we have. We’re not far from getting there.”

Hutchens: “I feel so strongly about the addiction problem in our country that I have designated a drug liaison officer, one of my deputies, in every one of the cities that we police and the unincorporated areas. And as part of that, we have a program called ‘The 3Gs: Guide, Guard, Go’ that we present to both students and to parents so they’re informed about all the new objects of abuse out there that come up on the market and are not federally regulated. … They’re sold under the terms of vitamins or herbal substances, and they’re actually narcotics. They’re substance abuse devices, and so we have to stay on top of that and … give our parents the tools to know what to do and how to keep their kids off of drugs, how to know when they’re starting to use drugs, how to identify what it looks like, because it doesn’t always look like a drug.”

On securing campuses:

Torlakson: “It is ultimately a local decision, by each school board, by the superintendent, by the administrators, as to what level of safety and what level of screening occurs. I think you need a thorough approach, and you need metal detectors, and one entrance to every campus. (But) does that feel more like a jail than a school? So those are kinds of issues to really look carefully at. Protocols. If there’s a family crisis or estrangement, how does a teacher talk to the administration so the spouse is on a list of concerned parties who shouldn’t be let on campus? Or should there be a really strict screening process? So the whole issue of access is a big one, and we’re going to look at the results of what San Bernardino has learned and give some advice to the … 1,100 school districts in the state. But ultimately it will come down to the level of safety that administrators and faculty feel, and parents feel on the schools.”

Mijares: “We do a very comprehensive assessment emanating from the Sheriff’s Office in terms of how to secure campuses, how to create an ingress, egress, entering, going out. It used to be that students, especially at the high school level, had some detest for closed campuses. They want to go and come as they please. But you know what? When you provide fences or boundaries for students, a lot of them feel safer. … So we’re having less pushback when it comes to keeping the campuses closed and monitored. There’s a way to get in, a way to get out. You have to be on this campus for special business. And there’s an approval process. People are required to wear badges. And if you don’t have those basic elements, then you are subject to having trespassers come on the campus that can hurt our children. All that is required is for one of those things to break down and a catastrophe occur, and it leads to tremendous grief.”

Hutchens: “We will do training with the faculty, if that’s what’s asked for, on how to respond to an incident. It’s difficult in a free society. We can put fences and barriers, and checks and balances, but it is difficult because it could be someone who is a parent, where there was no indication of anything wrong, and the school not giving access to a parent is problem as well, potentially. So it’s a challenge. And I’d like to put it in perspective. I mean, it’s horrible anytime it happens. It’s just horrible. It shocks our senses. Like Sandy Hook. But in the number of children in this country going to school every day, what you don’t hear about are the successes, the times we’ve prevented something from happening.”

On hoaxes and false threats:

Hutchens: “Say a bomb threat (is called into) a school. And we did have some occurring here in Orange County, and actually the suspect was out of the country and ultimately we figured out who that was. But we balance that. We’ll work with the school district. Is this a serious threat? We’ll try and vet it to see if this is something we should be concerned about, or is it a hoax. We’ll always err on the side of caution — I can tell you that. It may disrupt, but we’ll always err on the side of caution.”

Torlakson: “It ultimately also boils down to local decision-making. I flew down when I heard about the Los Angeles (Unified) School District thinking of closing, and then closing their schools because of the bomb threat. That was about a year and a half, two years ago. But as I talked to their safety officials, I went to their emergency response center, they had all safety measures and first responders on board, ready to go. … They analyzed the situation (and) made a tough call. But what if there had been a bomb and what if it had gone off? … I believe schools are doing a good job overall in terms of sorting out these types of threats and responding accordingly.”

Mijares: “We go through a process to determine … the credibility of that in concert with law enforcement. And then a decision is made swiftly, with no apologies. And if we have to vacate the campus — we’ve had a few, where high school principals have had to vacate the entire campus because somebody calls in. Young people are becoming more aware, though, that there are consequences, serious consequences, for that behavior. You think you can get on your cell phone and make a call? Guess what, we can track that call. And you … could face some major consequence. And it’s important that we share that.

On what they would like to see done:

Torlakson: “We developed a model policy on (youth) suicide. Between ages 15 and 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Hundreds of young people take their lives and it’s very tragic, so the model policy has us also doing professional development so that teachers … and administrators can better detect if a student is depressed, if a student is making any conversation that might talk on, or border on, discussion or thinking about killing oneself.”

Mijares: “Universal preschool, which is something I’ve articulated … is to me the one thing that can be done to transform the system overnight. We have a report here called the Orange County Community Indicators Report that’s released annually. We’re finding that over 50 percent of our young people that come into kindergarten come unprepared. … So that’s a big problem and I think that can be solved with universal preschool.”

“I think the matter of counselors is essential. … I’m really heartened when I see more districts commit funds and resources to bringing on counselors because they can do a lot to avert disasters, safety issues, just by the intel they pick up on the campus — running groups, doing one-on-one counseling.”

Hutchens: “If I could wave a magic wand and instantly have money and the resources, I would love to see a school resource officer on every campus — elementary, junior high school, high school — talking, just being there and knowing the kids, having a relationship with the kids. Because I have found that (students) do come forward … and they’ll report things that are occurring, or they’ll report that they’re having trouble at home. … I understand that the resources are not there (to pay for school resource officers) and I can’t offer it as well without some compensation. But I think it’s important, something for the future.”

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The Safe Schools Conference, presented by former California Secretary of Education Dave Long through his firm, Dave Long & Associates, in collaboration with OCDE and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, continues Thursday and Friday. For more information, visit http://safeschoolsconference.com.