Eleven years ago, Kyler Erickson was a high school senior in Nebraska who happened to be visiting the nurse’s office to ice his ankle, which was injured the night before during a varsity basketball game.
A few feet away, a suspended classmate walked into an adjacent office, pulled out a gun, and fatally shot Assistant Principal Vicki Kaspar. The student then shot the school’s principal three times and fired down a hallway before fleeing the campus and taking his own life in his car.
“Just the images of everything that day, seeing the blood and the screams and just your administration, your friends, your family just weeping in tears — every single detail of that day I will never, ever forget for the rest of my life,” said Erickson, now 29.
As a featured speaker at the 13th annual Safe Schools Conference, Erickson spoke candidly on Wednesday to an audience of educators and law enforcement personnel about witnessing a deadly school shooting first-hand — and what life was like after that tragic day in January 2011.
He opened up about the depression and PTSD struggles that followed, the trauma-focused therapy that rescued him, his Division I college basketball career, and his subsequent journey across the country to talk to students and educators about mental health, school violence and potential solutions to mass shootings.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years now, all across the United States in 37 different states, talking to over 750,000 kids,” Erickson said, “and I’m just trying to dive into what makes them tick and how we can improve life for them.”
Sharing best practices
Wednesday marked the first day of this year’s Safe Schools Conference, which continues through Friday at Delta Hotels Anaheim Garden Grove. Presented by former California Secretary of Education Dave Long through his firm, Dave Long & Associates, the annual event is held in partnership with the Orange County Department of Education and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to share best practices and to increase collaboration between the education and law enforcement communities.
This year, there are more than 500 registered attendees from throughout California and across the country, including teachers, administrators, school board members, counselors, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, youth service workers and other school and community leaders interested in learning more about student safety and its broader impacts on attendance, engagement and academic performance.
Participants have been able to choose from more than 50 workshops addressing a wide array of topics, including crisis response, bullying, wellness, social-emotional learning, disaster preparedness, gang awareness, mental health, behavioral threat assessments, social media, drug abuse prevention, and human trafficking.
Long said these focus areas have evolved over time, reflecting modern challenges for schools and law enforcement.
“I think back 12, 13 years ago, we had presenters talking about drug-sniffing dogs,” he said. “That’s now changed, and there’s a heavier emphasis on school shootings as well as social media and how those two areas intersect. There is also a heavy emphasis on fentanyl, along with mental health and what to look for in the classroom. So it’s changing.”
“Honestly, I wish we didn’t have to have this conference because that would mean that everything is just fine, but it’s not,” Long added, “and we want to address these issues.”
A unique collaboration
Along with dozens of breakout sessions, each day of the conference features one general session with a keynote presentation.
On the heels of Erickson’s appearance, Azim Noordin Khamisa and Tony Hicks are set to speak on Thursday about a tragic event that brought their lives together and how they’re working to break the cycle of youth violence through positive choices and the principles of nonviolence and peacemaking.
On Friday, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Alonzo Winston II and Sgt. Michael Walters will break down the opioid crisis and the latest developments on other drugs.
“I just don’t know of another conference where law enforcement and educators are together for three days,” Long said. “Even at lunches and standing out here talking, to see law enforcement exchanging with educators and helping one another, it’s a very unique collaboration and we’re just very proud of it. And it really reaps benefits for our children.”
Continuing an annual tradition, the 2022 conference presented two Distinguished Safe Schools Awards on Wednesday. This year’s honorees are the School Mobile Assessment and Resource Team, or SMART, administered by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and Monique Yessian, director of student services for the Tustin Unified School District.
The Safe Schools Conference continues through Friday, July 15.