Mijares: Pursuit of safer schools drives collaboration between educators, law enforcement

More than anything, we owe it to our students to provide them with safe and secure campuses where learning thrives. Moreover, we owe it to parents to return their children each day just as healthy and happy as when they arrived.

Yet we have seen so many instances nationally where acts of violence break the sanctity of school communities, including horrific tragedies like the recent mass shooting that took the lives of 17 people at a high school in Florida.

To say school shootings occur too often in the United States is an understatement. Once is too often.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresI wish it weren’t necessary to write this column. However, I want to offer my most heartfelt condolences to anyone impacted by senseless violence, and I want to reaffirm the ongoing commitment of the Orange County Department of Education and leaders throughout our region to proactively protect our schools — and specifically our students and staff.

Let’s start with some background. Each year, campuses in California are required by law to update their Comprehensive Safe School Plans, which, among other things, outline each site’s planned responses to various crises. These are routinely reinforced through site-level drills including evacuations and shelter-in-place exercises.

The strategies that schools employ to promote safety will vary by campus and are ultimately up to each district’s school board and superintendent, in partnership with teachers, staff, students and communities. But OCDE has long supported this work with trainings and workshops throughout the year, covering a raft of topics including school safety plans, earthquake preparedness, behavioral threat assessments, resilience strategies and active-shooter behavioral indicators.

Our department also works closely with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement agencies to discuss everything from cyberbullying to securing school facilities. Additionally, OCDE and the Sheriff’s Department team up every summer to host the Safe Schools Conference with the California Department of Education. This three-day event brings together more than 500 educators and law enforcement representatives from throughout the state to discuss issues and trends related to campus violence, bullying, social media, human trafficking, gangs and substance abuse.

In the case of critical incidents impacting schools, OCDE’s Crisis Response Network deploys psychologists, nurses, social workers and other personnel to support students and staff during and after emergencies. This team also provides training to schools, youth service providers, parents and students.

I would add that OCDE continues to promote positive school climates and anti-bullying through such initiatives as the Multi-Tiered System of Support framework, Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports — often referred to as PBIS — and our One Billion Acts of Kindness campaign, which was launched in 2016 to promote character and amplify civility in our communities.

Our perception of the world changed forever on April 20, 1999, when a pair of high school students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher on the campus of Columbine High School. From that day forward, educators have worked closely with law enforcement to continually assess schools and implement protocols to make them safer.

Suffice to say, this a race that has no finish line — not now, not ever.

If game-changing technologies emerge that can enhance our work, we will pursue them. If there are better practices elsewhere in the world, we will adopt them. Simply put, we will vigorously research any measure that protects our students and staff from internal or external threats.

The stakes are too high to rest for a second on this issue, and we owe our kids nothing less.