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LCUSD grapples with safety, drugs, discipline after troubling week at La Cañada High

LCUSD grapples with safety, drugs, discipline after troubling week at La Cañada High
Parents crowd a La Cañada Unified School District Board meeting Tuesday to address concerns about student safety, drugs and the district’s discipline policy after two high school students were arrested and three hospitalized in drug-related incidents. (Photo by Sara Cardine)

Alarmed by recent events on the La Cañada High School campus, district officials offered reassurances about student safety Tuesday and sought solutions in an impassioned hours-long discussion with parents that touched on drug use, security and the district's discipline policy.

Unnerved parents shared their concerns with La Cañada Unified School Board members about the vulnerability of an open high school, teens reportedly possessing drugs and vaping on campus and the likelihood that a student previously arrested, expelled or suspended could return without permission and pose a threat to student safety.

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That's what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, when a student expelled the previous school year killed 17 students and teachers in a shooting that's garnered national attention and inspired the organization of protests and walkouts.

But it also happened Friday morning at LCHS, when suspended 18-year-old student Dax Shmidt walked onto campus after being arrested on Feb. 21 for endangering a minor and selling what was thought to be prescription Xanax to a student who later required hospitalization. Law enforcement officials confirmed Shmidt had a seizure in the office Friday and was hospitalized but could not say whether it was due to drug use.

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In unrelated events, another LCHS student was also hospitalized Feb. 21 for a medication-related emergency, while a second female student was arrested Friday for possession of a controlled substance after a student tip led to a search of her vehicle. Both students are minors.

Tuesday's school board meeting discussion, originally set to address safety and security in the wake of the Florida school shooting, became fraught with emotion as parents sought answers about what happened at the high school and what's being done to ensure last week's events won't happen again.

"What are the schools going to do to prevent what's happening rather than reacting to it, which I fear is what we're doing now?" asked mom Lydia Marquez. "We can't just send kids to jail — that's not going to work."

Patty Corrales, a former Homeland Security attorney with two kids at the high school, recommended the board convene a drug task force and expressed frustration at how the unsecured campus allowed Shmidt to return Friday.

"I'm so angry that that happened, and the school just brushed it off as nothing," Corrales said. "You should have a security guard present, so a student who's suspended could see that security guard armed on campus."

District officials listened stoically, providing clarity when possible and taking notes on issues brought up by nearly 25 parent speakers. Board President Kaitzer Puglia asked audience members to work in partnership with officials to identify both short- and long-term solutions.

"We have to address this issue from a multipronged approach," she said, naming security audits, mental health and depression, drug use, bullying and even traffic as avenues to explore. "We need you parents as partners in all of these discussion points."

Board members talked about forming district and community task forces to continuously address safety issues and help refine policies, as well as hosting a brown-bag lunch talk for students on recent events.

LCUSD Supt. Wendy Sinnette said the district is creating an anonymous tip line so students and parents can report troubling behavior or threats made on social media accounts, both of which were the concern of several parents who'd heard an at-risk student had made threats against the high school that were later discovered to be "unfounded."

Some parents demanded that the troubled student be named, while others argued for maintaining the privacy of a minor.

Sinnette said a reporting line would provide individuals who witnessed such disturbances a course of action.

"We can mobilize all of this within the next 24 to 48 hours," she said of the tip line.

Several speakers mentioned a critical lack of communication to students about what was going on at the school. LCUSD student representative Avery Suk said the Associated Student Body aims to organize a talk sometime in the next week.

"During a time of chaos, you don't want to immediately go into it and give people wrong information," Suk said. "We do need time to wait and hear what the truth is, from the adults, in order to have that conversation."

LCHS senior Sarah Ann Settles advocated for students to be kept in the loop, to help keep unwarranted gossip from spreading into a school-wide pandemonium.

Fellow senior Abbey Frederich, who sat with Settles and friend Adin Ryssdal, said afterward rumors started flying the minute students saw ambulances and sheriff's vehicles on campus. And yet not a single teacher has talked about what happened, she said.

She arrived at Tuesday's meeting armed with a list of topics she hoped would be addressed, including what she described as a prevalence of drug sales and use at the school.

"I can't say we got the answers we wanted, but everything was brought up," Frederich said. "But for the first time in a long time, it does feel like we're on the same page."

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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