Commentary: Make school safety a new year priority
By the time you read this, Christmas will have come and gone and we’ll be heading to the new year with anticipation of better days to come.
The children of our community have taken the obligatory holiday break and most are eagerly looking forward to Christmas and the joys and toys it will bring. I find myself wondering, though, what they are thinking today about the tragic, senseless event that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Certainly most of them know of Sandy Hook. It has been virtually impossible to avoid the news of that massacre because the media, as is always the case in such events, inserts itself into every nook and cranny of the lives of the shooter and the victims and their loved ones, day after day, week after week. They try to dissect the life of a gunman who took more than two dozen lives, looking for anything that might make sense of such a senseless act. And the smothering news is everywhere, sometimes seeming as thick as the Los Angeles smog of my youth.
On Dec. 18, I was among the 50 or so members of the community who attended the emergency study session called by the trustees of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to discuss the Newtown tragedy, its impact on our school district and our preparedness for a similar event here. That meeting was conducted crisply and efficiently; and in broad terms, the staff was left with several assignments to study and asked to return with solutions for the board to consider at a future regular meeting.
Costa Mesa Police Chief Tom Gazsi and Newport Beach Deputy Chief Dave McGill made brief presentations and answered questions from the board members and staff. One of the predominant points emphasized was the importance of School Resource Officers on our campuses.
In fact, the officers who fill that role in Newport Beach schools were at the meeting and McGill acknowledged their presence. Unfortunately, Gazsi could not do the same because Costa Mesa presently has no SROs — the result of recent short-sighted budget decisions made by our elected leaders. After the two top cops left and the program expanded into other areas, the value of the SROs remained a constant thread through most of the subsequent discussions by board members, staff and members of the community.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, which included tear-filled testimony by parents so choked with fear for the safety of their children that they could barely speak, I was left to ponder much of what had been said. Beyond the value of the SROs to the safety of the children of our communities, I was especially concerned with the mental health aspects of Sandy Hook on our children and their parents.
We were told that 27 crisis specialists were on the campuses the Monday following the tragedy to be available to those who needed help dealing with the information. A few days later, the children left school for an extended holiday — a time without the opportunity for that kind of professional attention — while the media firestorm around the event seems not to have dimmed much and those children have even greater unsupervised opportunities to be exposed to it.
I find myself concerned about the unfortunate timing of this particular Christmas holiday and how our children will handle the information and what their collective mindsets might be when they return to the campus in another few days. I wonder how many, already distressed about their safety, will find themselves looking around their classrooms, trying to pick out a potential gunman among their peers. Will they attempt to profile their classmates, looking for someone who fits the description we’ve been given of the Sandy Hook gunman? And what will they do with that information?
I wonder what those in charge, at the schools and at the district headquarters, plan to do about this part of the post-Sandy Hook equation. Will those crisis counselors find themselves on long-term assignments at every school in the district?
And, of course, I wonder if our elected leaders in Costa Mesa will find the wisdom to reinstate School Resource Officers on our campuses quickly as the other facets of the community’s response to this crisis are considered.
They might plead that we have a budget crisis, but that is not true. We are in the middle of a balanced budget year — one that includes $1 million in a contingency fund managed by CEO Tom Hatch. It seems to me that, for about 10% of that fund, we could replace the two SROs at the high schools for the remainder of the fiscal year as a bridge measure until the 2013-14 budget is cobbled together this spring. To put potholes and parties ahead of the safety and mental well-being of our children seems very, very wrong.
GEOFF WEST is editor of a Costa Mesa blog, A Bubbling Cauldron.