While the tragic events of Newtown, Conn. linger even after the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School have returned to their classes, the memory of the massacre has not subsided.
Nor has the political muscle-flexing that has been on display since Adam Lanza killed 20 students and six adults in a Dec. 14 shooting, the second largest killing in U.S. history on a school campus.
And against this backdrop, officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District are now fielding and answering questions about their schools’ safety plans as well as confronting the current day realities of educating and protecting their staff and students in an urban environment.
Shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary killings, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck announced that he would deploy officers to visit LAUSD schools beginning Jan. 7.
“A barrier has been broken in our culture, and that barrier is the safety of our youngest residents,” Beck said. “It’s all of our jobs to make sure that we resurrect that barrier and that our children are safe.”
Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey is one of the Westside schools where LAPD officers were stationed when students returned from their winter break Jan. 7.
“Our unit has been assigned here for at least the rest of the month,” said Officer Johnny Gil.
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy sought to assure parents in the aftermath of the shootings that the school district is taking every precaution to protect its students as well as its staff.
“School police and operations will also be conducting another thorough review of our policies and procedures regarding access to campuses. Right now, the vast majority of our schools can only be accessed by going through the main office,” Deasy said in a statement. “Play areas and classrooms are protected by locked gates and fences. While we feel our campuses are currently secure, we are always open to suggestions for making them even more so.”
Every campus within the LAUSD has a school safety plan in place, district officials said after the Newtown shooting. These plans include responding to incidents where students and staff may be in danger of injury.
Venice High School Principal Dr. Elsa Mendoza said the mood on campus was upbeat on the first day back from vacation. She said she stressed to parents and students in her weekly newsletter that Venice High is a safe campus.
“We are keeping our gates locked during the day and we will definitely make sure that people adhere to the policy,” Mendoza said.
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer said despite the number of shootings at schools, many students consider them a secure haven.
“What we know from our students is schools are some of the safest places in the community,” he said. “And that is an incredible credit to our administrators, teachers and the men and women of our school police.”
The Los Angeles School Police Department deploys over 200 police officers throughout the district and they are headquartered on the campus of Venice High School.
The National Rifle Association has suggested having armed guards in every school in the nation in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.
In a Dec. 21 news conference, NRA Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre rejected any calls for gun reform or legislation that his organization thinks will limit gun ownership. Instead, he called for armed security guards and selected staff members of each school to be allowed to carry guns at the site.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre told the audience of reporters.
A coalition of gun rights advocates have announced plans to hold a “Gun Appreciation Day” Jan. 18, two days before President Barack Obama is sworn into office for the second time.
Zimmer disagrees with LaPierre’s proposed solution.
“As a human being, teacher and member of this school community, in general, we need fewer weapons around our schools,” he said. “But I am a very, very strong believer in community-based policing, where the majority of an officer’s time is spent in intervention and not suppression.”
On “Meet the Press” on Dec. 23, LaPierre reiterated his earlier statements regarding guns on school grounds. “If it’s crazy to want to put an armed police officer in every school in America, then call me crazy,” the NRA executive responded to a question by host David Gregory.
Sarah Auerswald, whose son is a fourth grader at Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista, dismissed LaPierre’s call for having more people with guns at school as absurd.
“I think the NRA’s proposal today of arming guards at every school is ludicrous and has nothing to do with getting at the heart of the problem,” she said.
Another parent, Linda Patterson-Salib, called LaPierre’s suggestion “ludicrous.” Salib, whose daughter is an eighth grader at Marina Del Rey Middle School, said having armed guards is not always the solution.
“At Columbine, there were armed guards on campus when the shootings happened,” she noted.
Salib was referring to the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 other students. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Neil Gardner was an armed, full-time school resource officer at the school and exchanged gunfire with Harris and Klebold before they committed suicide.
Zimmer said there are certain elements that reflect if a school is providing adequate safety measures, in his opinion.
“As a policy maker, I would like to know three things,” he said. “How safe are our schools in terms of equipments, training and plans that need to be in place in order for students to feel safe?”
Beck has not said how long he intends to have LAPD officers on school campuses.