Newport-Mesa will review school safety procedures and policies as concerns grow

Russell Lee-Sung, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s deputy superintendent and chief academic officer, will take the lead in a review of the district’s safety procedures and policies.
(File Photo)

Amid heightened school safety concerns, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District said this week that it will conduct an in-depth review of its safety procedures and policies.

Deputy Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer Russell Lee-Sung will lead the study.

John Drake, district director of curriculum and instruction, will take on Lee-Sung’s duties, enabling Lee-Sung to visit schools, meet with teachers and parents and provide the school board with safety updates. Drake will receive more pay during the estimated six-month period, though the amount was not immediately available.

“Everyone has a role in safety,” Lee-Sung said. “But it takes someone to really make sure we’re doing everything possible, and a lot of this stuff takes coordination between various divisions.”

Safety discussions including Lee-Sung and various district leadership groups began in October to review current procedures and brainstorm possible short-term goals that could be implemented without immediate additional funding.

The goals include visiting each campus and, with help from a retired Newport Beach police officer, assessing areas that need improvement; increasing school resource officers’ visibility, particularly in elementary schools; and improving safety drills, with active-shooter scenarios at all schools.

Long-term safety goals are being considered and will be based on research and potential state funding, according to district officials.

Safety has been a recurring topic among parents and teachers during school board meetings this academic year, but concerns heightened after the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed.

Days after the shooting, Newport Beach police investigated a threat of violence in graffiti found on a desk in a seventh-grade classroom at Corona del Mar Middle and High School but deemed it not credible.

Last month, parents worried about a drawing by a student at California Elementary School in Costa Mesa called on the district to quickly ramp up security measures.

Britt Dowdy, president of the district teachers union, said he was pleased to hear a senior administrator was appointed to lead the safety review but added that in-depth reviews should have been standard “a long time ago.”

Currently, all school sites and other district facilities have safety plans that are updated yearly and as needed. School administrators and school site councils, which include staff, parent and student representatives, review the plans before they are sent to the school board for approval.

That isn’t enough for some parents and Dowdy, who said “people in the community are frustrated.”

He listed other day-to-day concerns such as sweltering classrooms, reports of rats at various high schools and the drawn-out process of capping sewer pipes at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa.

“The less-severe instances are the things that aren’t being resolved — those are on a more regular basis,” Dowdy said. “And not involving parents and unions consistently outside of safety council is a bad thing.”

But Lee-Sung said the district “always listens.”

In January, district officials held multiple community meetings about installing black rod iron fencing and renovating offices at three elementary schools to help control visitor access and enhance security. Attendance at those meetings was low.

In February, Supt. Fred Navarro emailed parents with an overview of current safety plans and procedures after the incident in Corona del Mar.

Air conditioning projects are underway, and the school board approved a partnership in February with Challenge Success, a Stanford-based nonprofit organization that helps families and students build academic, social and emotional skills.

Lee-Sung said he appreciates hearing “legitimate suggestions” from community members but said the district has to be “strategic” in determining the best safety measures for everyone.

“We have some folks who want every safety security thing to the point of armed staff members, metal detectors and barbed wire,” he said. “Some believe we need to be a welcoming and supportive environment. We’ll have to grapple with various suggestions out there.”

Twitter: @vegapriscella