DISTRICT ATTORNEY SUMMER STEPHAN OFFERS REASSURANCE AFTER RECENT SCHOOL THREATS AND URGES “COMMON BYSTANDER INTERVENTION”

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By Eric Bartl

March 5, 2018 (San Diego) - San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan told East County Magazine that San Diego County has seen a surge in threats from students against schools since the February 14 school shooting in Parkland, FL. She said there is good news and bad news.

The bad news is that as many school threats have been made in San Diego County since Feb. 14 as are made in a typical year, as the San Diego Union-Tribune recently reported. Stephan called this the copycat effect. She told ECM news partner 10 News that making a criminal threat can lead to a felony conviction and jail time.

One recent threat came from a West Hills High School freshman in Santee on Tuesday, February 27, as ECM reported. He posted a threatening message with a picture of a Lego gun. After concerned students and school officials reported the threat, deputies arrested the student and booked him into Juvenile Hall on a felony charge of making a criminal threat.

Brandi Bozelle, a parent of two West Hills students, first reacted to the news by thinking her kids’ school was next to be victimized, but found some relief that the threat was made with Legos. She said that her kids did not take the threat seriously at all. But she is glad the authorities took it seriously. Santee had a school shooting in the past (Santana high school in 2001).

Another West Hills parent, Tami Miller, said, “I talk to my kids all the time about this. They think I overreact, but I can feel good that I am trying to educate my kids and be a positive influence on them.” She added, “Parents talk to your kids, don’t make light of serious issues. This has got to stop!”

The West Hills student did have access to hunting rifles. It does not appear that any other student who made other recent threats had access to a firearm and many of the threat-makers say they were merely joking. The Sheriff’s Dept. gave the following warning in the Feb. 28 news release: “The Sheriff’s Department and local school districts take every threat seriously and nothing can be dismissed or ignored.” Arrests were also made related to threats against Poway adult school, Torrey Pines High School and Westview High School.

Stephan emphasized during an interview that people don’t have to feel helpless or hopeless. She wants people to feel empowered with understanding the vital role the community plays in protecting schools. She wants people to know how preventable the vast majority of school shootings are through common bystander intervention,” by which she means people watching out for warning signs and reporting potential shooters to the proper authorities.

She said 93% of school shooters make plans ahead of time and give off recognizable warning signs, 80% of them tell one person what they are going to do beforehand, and 60% tell at least two people.

“This is close to home for me,” Stephan said. “I prosecuted and tried the perpetrator of the last school shooting we had in San Diego County. In 2010, a man who felt society had treated him poorly took his grievances out on children and shot two little girls at Kelly Elementary School. It’s a miracle nobody was killed,” she remembered solemnly.

She continued, “I studied everything in his background. He had all the telltale signs. He clearly and repeatedly told someone his intentions. They failed to tell anyone. Thankfully there has not been a school shooting in San Diego since. What we want is for everyone in the community to know to report the warnings signs when they see them.”

Stephan said the good news is that people are recognizing warning signs and reporting threats now more than ever, even minimal threats. She said, “Now people are not taking a chance on something they may have dismissed in the past.”

Bob Mueller, Student Support Services Executive Director for the San Diego County Office of Education, told ECM that warning signs people should watch for include when someone has a preoccupation with weapons, violent themes, or when they have committed violence in the past. Another sign is when a person seems unable to cope with a real or perceived loss.

Mueller commented on the copycat effect: “We typically see a spike in threats following an attack at a school...Some threats are made by individuals who feel powerful by causing others to become fearful, while some are made by children who want to disrupt school.”

Mueller also cautions against alarmism. He said overreacting to the news of school shootings can cause unnecessary trauma to children.  He wants to put the school shooting rates in perspective.

He told KPBS that the odds of a child becoming a victim of homicide at school is one in 3 million. He later elaborated, “Possession of a firearm on campus is exceptionally rare. Discharging a firearm on a school campus is even more rare...Almost all active-shooter threats and bomb threats are intended to cause disruption. They almost never are rooted in an actual intention to commit the act that is threatened.”

Stephan acknowledged the slim odds that any particular child will become a victim of a school shooting, but said that even one victim is one victim too many.

The DA’s office emphasizes a combination of prosecution and crime prevention. Since 2014, the DA’s office handled about 45 cases of threats against schools (before this recent surge). Twenty of those cases were prosecuted in juvenile court. The other 25 were not deemed a criminal threat but the DA’s office still remained focused on them and worked with the schools to prevent the threats from escalating. Stephan believes all of these efforts have saved lives. “It’s easy to measure successful prosecution, but you can’t completely measure what has been accomplished through intervention and prevention,” she said.

As national rates of school shootings skyrocketed in recent years, especially from 2013-2015, rates in San Diego county plummeted. According to a Wikipedia list of school shootings, in the U.S. between 1991 and 2000 there were two school shootings in San Diego County. Between 2001 and 2010 there were three. From 2011 to the present there have been zero.

As the top law enforcement official in the County leading the only agency with county-wide jurisdiction, Stephan said she is in a unique position to monitor and address school threats. She used her experiences to help the DA’s office make changes in the way they handle school threats. These changes began to materialize in 2014 when the DA’s office established a law enforcement threat assessment unit to respond to school threats.

Stephan explained that at one time in the DA’s office, an unknown source of a threat that never materialized might be ignored. She said that since 2014 they do not give up looking for the source of any threat until they find it. She explained, “You can only check the credibility of a threat once you know who made it. Once you know the suspect you can begin to investigate their background, look at “open source intelligence” such as social media, whether they have any registered guns, whether they have made any recent ammunition purchases, whether there has been contact made by terrorist organizations trying to recruit them, whether they have a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold, and whether they have had any recent traumatic events such as the death of a parent, loss of a girlfriend, or suspension from school. Once an investigation is completed, only then can you determine whether the threat is credible or not.” (Learn more in this FBI publication on school shooters .)

Stephan and Mueller both spoke about the collaboration between law enforcement agencies that is taking place in San Diego county along with other officials and how pivotal that is to keeping schools safe. (Video) “Tragically, there are cases where concerns have been reported and school officials or law enforcement did not act. That’s why the District Attorney’s Office, our Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association, and our public schools are working to prevent that type of failure in San Diego,” said Mueller.

The Department of Homeland Security developed an active shooter situation safety procedure called “Run, Hide, Fight.” The concept is explained in a handy pocket card resource they make available. It guides people to prioritize running if they can, hiding if they cannot, and fighting as a last resort. It also offers practical advice for how to act when law enforcement arrives on the scene, such as keeping your hands visible, following officers’ instructions, and not distracting them.

Mueller is hesitant to directly apply this procedure to school situations. He explained, “Homeland Security’s general guidance is a part of the training we provide for school employees. This guidance is great for individual citizens and applies to a variety of settings, but it’s incomplete when you consider the role school employees play in protecting the children in their care.

“If you have a classroom full of second graders, the Run, Hide or Fight options are far more complicated. I worry that providing incomplete guidance could result in decisions that put children at greater risk...The federal government has never provided clear guidance on how a school employee should evaluate or act on those options with 30 to 40 children in their care. As a result, most school districts in the nation continued to rely on a single-option strategy: lockdown and wait for rescue.”

He continued, “In 2016, SDCOE formed a workgroup composed of school district administrators, school psychologists, and police officers to create a set of emergency procedures designed for use in schools. That group created a sample emergency action plan we refer to as Options-Based Responses, as well as a staff training model, which teaches staff how to lead their students in the run, hide, or fight options. This work was endorsed for use in San Diego County schools by the San Diego County Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association.

“We provide very specific guidance, but the essential elements are as follows:

  • Run: If you know the location of the shooter, and can envision a clear route to safety, quickly evacuate your students to a safe location. Keep buildings and terrain between you and the shooter.
  • Hide: If you don’t know the location of the shooter, or you can’t envision a clear route to safety, lockdown with your children in the most secure location available and build a strong barricade.
  • Fight: If you have no safer alternative -- run or hide -- use violent force to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter.

Having said all of that, I want to add that the county’s school districts are in transition on these emergency actions. Some have implemented them with staff, while others are planning implementation.”

All schools have fire and earthquake emergency procedures and conduct drills to practice them, and even schools that have not implemented Options-Based Responses have established emergency procedures related to other threats. Mueller explained these as well:

  • “‘Lockdown’ describes the action we want staff to take when there is danger on the school campus. Lockdown involves locking adults and students into the most secure location available and constructing a strong barricade.
  • ‘Secure campus’ is used when there is a danger near the campus, but no imminent danger on campus. This is typically used when there is police activity near the school. During a ‘secure campus’ status, staff members are instructed to keep students inside, lock all classroom and office doors and windows, and secure the school perimeter gates. While a ‘secure campus’ order is in place, instruction and work in classrooms and offices can continue.
  • ‘Shelter in place’ is used when an airborne contaminant such as smoke or chemicals is present or nearby. During this response, staff are instructed to turn off HVAC systems, close doors and windows, and use tape and plastic to prevent outside air from entering classrooms.

Many times, media reports often use the word ‘lockdown’ when a school is actually in a ‘secure campus’ or ‘shelter in place’ status.”

During a lockdown, classrooms are also often instructed to turn off the lights, close the window blinds, hide in the least visible part of the room and stay quiet. http://osfm.fire.ca.gov/codedevelopment/pdf/SLTF/lockdown.pdf

The Sheriff’s Dept. issued the following statement: “We want to remind students that if they hear any threat of violence or even potential violence, they can always approach our school resource deputies or call the anonymous Crime Stoppers Students Speaking Out Tip Line at (888) 580-8477 or the Sheriff’s Department at (858) 565-5200.