As schools prepare for the worst, students beg for an end to gun violence

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Two days after the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary, students at Del Norte High School in San Diego got a taste of the kind of fear people at the school in Texas no doubt felt that day.

Del Norte High was one of five Poway Unified School District campuses quarantined Thursday, after someone called an anonymous threat to shoot the high school and a nearby elementary school.

There were no shots fired and no one was hurt. Yet amid the lockdown, students said they and their peers feared the worst – that there was an active shooter on campus.

Inside locked, dark classrooms, students were crying. People barricaded the doors with desks. The students texted their parents in case this was the last time they could message their family.

“It was a moment, like, this might be the last time I talk to my friends and my parents,” said Anneliese Peerbolte, a 17-year-old senior at Del Norte. “Having to text my mom like, ‘I love you. If I don’t come home tonight, just know that I love you, that’s hard.

The events in Del Norte on Thursday highlighted the fear that has in some ways become a part of school life in the United States as school shootings continue to occur.

“Even though it was just a threat, I just feel like… when is this going to stop, you know?” said Trinity Kwon, an 18-year-old senior at Del Norte. “Gun violence is…so prevalent, and if this event hasn’t shown how much we need to change, then I don’t know what’s going on.”

In the years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, schools across the country have had to devote more and more time and resources to fortifying schools against intruders and to prepare staff and students for the worst. case scenario.

The focus on safety, while necessary, has sometimes hijacked student learning. Fear of gun violence at school is now compounding students’ mental health issues that were already exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, educators say.

“When it’s over, think about it, are you ready to learn algebra?” You don’t just go back to learning, even after an exercise,” Greg Mizel, associate superintendent of student services at Poway Unified, said during the Del Norte lockdown Thursday. “They don’t learn today. Or maybe we say it’s a different kind of learning now.

Kwon said she spent years fighting gun violence through Del Norte’s SAVE Promise club. She and Peerbolte both spoke out against gun violence four years ago when they were middle schoolers after the Parkland shootings. Before lockdown hit this week, the two students were planning a gun violence strike for Friday.

So when they learned about Uvalde, Texas from the shooting, and when they had to self-isolate, Kwon said she felt discouraged.

“It’s like we go back into this cycle of remembering those lives and honoring them…then all of a sudden we go back to our normal lives. And then another bad shootout happens,” Kwon said.

“But you can do your best”

Several San Diego school leaders said the Texas shooting reminded them of the other heavy duty they carry on their shoulders besides teaching students: keeping students safe.

“An event like yesterday reminds me of how huge the responsibility is,” Mizel said the day after the Robb Elementary shooting. “I have 35,000 children, you know, that I have to keep safe every day, and that’s a big deal.”

Take a walk around the Del Norte campus and you can see how school shootings across the country have, bit by bit, changed the face of campus, with each change reflecting a lesson learned from a past shooting.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012, Poway Unified reinforced the gates and fences on its campuses. Schools reduced the number of campus access points, reworked traffic patterns for drop-off and pickup, and began requiring all visitors to log in and take photo ID, Mizel said.

Poway Unified Schools has adopted the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise’s Say Something program, which helps teach students to look for the warning signs of students about to hurt themselves or others.

After the 2018 Parkland High shooting, Poway Unified added security cameras and created a 24/7 information line that students or staff could call to report suspicious activity, Mizel said. Schools have made emergency backpacks, each containing items such as a class list, flashlights, first aid kits, exit route maps and, for younger children, books to color to pass the time. The district has hired more counselors and campus security officers.

The Robb Elementary shooting happened just as Poway Unified was conducting “vulnerability walks” at every school in the district, where school officials walk through campus with a security expert from the county school to identify potential weaknesses in campus security, by asking questions like: Can everyone hear the intercom system? Where are the security camera blind spots? Where could the kids jump the fence?

Meanwhile, Poway Unified has worked to provide resources to address student mental health.

Schools across the country recently received hundreds of millions of dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic that they could use to improve student mental health. Poway Unified used the money to bolster its mental health workforce: The district now has one clinical therapist in each high school, three counselors in each middle school, and five counselors in each high school. Each elementary school has a counselor at least three days a week.

Poway Unified schools each have a threat assessment team that includes mental health experts who have completed a week of training on assessing threats and providing appropriate interventions to students who threaten to hurt or harm themselves the others, Mizel said.

Del Norte has also enlisted the help of about five dozen student peer counselors, who provide tutoring, mentoring, office hours, stress management workshops and other forms of assistance to students.

Due to the pandemic, the district began using a web monitoring tool called ContentKeeper, which flags the district whenever a student searches for something that could indicate they are about to harm themselves or others. . Mizel said he believed the tool saved at least four students from injury.

No amount of school security measures can guarantee that a shooting will not happen. Still, school leaders said they were continuing to do what they could to protect their students and staff, focusing on factors within their control.

“You can’t anticipate every scenario, but you can do your best,” Mizel said.

‘Enough is enough’

On Friday morning, Peerbolte and Kwon walked out. Hundreds of students gathered in a circle on the campus quad during their class time.

People were holding signs, holding each other and crying. It was the closure people needed after Thursday’s scary event, Kwon said.

One by one, the students read the names of the 19 children and two adults killed at Robb Elementary. After each name, the crowd observed a minute of silence.

“Every time a name was called, even if we didn’t know it personally, it was that moment of imagining that child’s life and remembering and honoring that child, and feeling the grief of the how gun violence affects our lives,” Kwon said. .

When the walkout ended, Peerbolte and Kwon asked the students to return to class, and they did. Brian Schultz, director of Del Norte, estimated in an interview that nearly 1,000 students walked out.

“I was just really proud of…sorry, I’m calming down,” Schultz said, pausing on the phone. “I was very proud of our students and staff. Seeing our students being so respectful…just keep reiterating why I’m doing this job. It’s nothing I’ve seen in 24 years as an educator.

Kwon and Peerbolte, like many students, said the gun violence won’t stop until changes happen at the legislative level, at the federal level. They want universal background checks and more restrictions on who can buy guns.

Despite everything that happened this week, the two students said they still had hope.

“I remain hopeful that our generation will be the generation that will change our world…that we will be the ones who really say, ‘Enough is enough,'” Kwon said. “The real parents of these victims don’t forget and they can’t go back to their everyday lives, but we do. So we owe it to them to really change…because no one should ever have to feel the fear they might have felt.

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