Parents ‘disappointed’ with VUSD’s response to school violence

Administrators say school violence is a symptom of social media use but district, state data show students are safer on campus than they were prior to the pandemic

VISALIA – Student safety has always been a concern of parents who trust schools to keep their children out of harm’s way at the place where they spend the most time outside of their own home.

For the last year and a half that discussion has centered around virtual learning and indoor masking requirements which parents say threaten the physical, social and emotional well being of their children. Melissa Brewer, a parent of Visalia Unified School District students, has vehemently advocated for ending mask and vaccine mandates in schools as well as restoring parent access to local campuses. More recently though, she turned her attention to a more frightening threat of school violence in the form of a student shooter.

Prior to school returning from winter break, Brewer said one of her son’s 13-year-old classmates was arrested for a “credible threat” of shooting at Ridgeview Middle School. According to the Visalia Police Department, the boy was arrested at 1 p.m. on Jan. 9 after detectives with the violent crimes unit found a firearm while searching the teen’s home.

“I was more than a little disappointed to not see an emphasis on student safety included in tonight’s agenda,” Brewer said. “Student safety and student learning should be on every agenda and you should be asking for updates on the action steps that are being taken to ensure not only superior learning opportunities, but safe learning environments, free of violence.”

Since school returned in August for its first full attempt at in-person instruction in more than a year, there have been just a dozen instances of threats to shoot up a school across Tulare County’s nearly 60 school districts. Only two of the 12 were credible, meaning the student making the threats had access to a gun. The most extreme case was on Sept. 28, when Tulare County Sheriff’s deputies arrested a 13-year-old boy at Oak Valley School in Tulare. The school notified the department that a student may have brought a gun onto campus. Deputies not only confiscated a handgun from the boy’s backpack, they found two more firearms, including an assault rifle, during a search of his home. They also discovered the boy had threatened another student prior to his arrest.

In most cases, however, there is little force behind the threat. Of the 12 instances, eight involved students who did not have access to guns, one involved a replica gun and one was a five-year-old social media post which had been recirculated. 

The irony of the school shooting discussion is the space where parents feel safest sharing their concerns about school violence is not only perpetuating false narratives about school safety but also fabricating phantom threats.

On Dec. 7, Visalia Unified School District and the Visalia Police Department were made aware of a social media post threatening the safety of students at Redwood and El Diamante high schools. VPD said the initial post was rapidly shared amongst students and parents but the department immediately recognized it as a post that had been previously shared. Federal agencies shared with the department that the post used the letters “RHS” to describe the high school because there are many high schools with those initials across the nation and had been used as far back as 2016 to “create fear in multiple jurisdictions.” It was connected with another post depicting firearms, which had also been shared in previous years in the same manner.

VPD said the social media posts likely regained traction as students and parents had a heightened anxiety level following the mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan on Nov. 30 where four students were killed and seven people were injured. 

Discipline is Down

“Social media is impacting people in negative ways where kids are wanting to harm themselves, do harm to other people or are being enthralled by the harm that is happening to others,” said Brandon Gridiron, administrator of equity and student services for Visalia Unified. “And it’s also continuous.”

Gridiron said the amount of time kids have spent online during the pandemic could be correlated to what parents are hearing from teens about the safety of their campus. While there have been fights at VUSD high schools and middle schools, distinct disciplinary data shows less students are being suspended and for frewer days through January of this school year than prior to the pandemic in the same time period for the 2019-20 school year, especially when you consider students who are repeat offenders. 

Discipline is Down

“Social media is impacting people in negative ways where kids are wanting to harm themselves, do harm to other people or are being enthralled by the harm that is happening to others,” said Brandon Gridiron, administrator of equity and student services for Visalia Unified. “And it’s also continuous.”

Gridiron said the amount of time kids have spent online during the pandemic could be correlated to what parents are hearing from teens about the safety of their campus. While there have been fights at VUSD high schools and middle schools, distinct disciplinary data shows less students are being suspended and for frewer days through January of this school year than prior to the pandemic in the same time period for the 2019-20 school year, especially when you consider students who are repeat offenders. 

Suspensions are down in every grade level with the exception of 10th grade. While most suspensions behaviors were down, possession of a knife/dangerous object and the use of force or violence were up by 26% and 69%. However, there were significant drops in other serious offenses, such as causing physical injury (down 20%) and brandishing a knife (down 66%). 

Gridiron said less than 3% of the student population make up 100% of suspensions and of those who get suspended, a fraction of a percent make up more than a quarter of suspensions. The recidivism rate, or the number of students who have multiple incidents, is lower than it was in 2019-20 regardless of how many kids are in and out of class due to COVID.

“Is the percentage of kids who are getting in trouble going up?,” Gridiron said. “The answer is no, it didn’t.” 

Gridiron said the discipline numbers are extremely encouraging considering new challenges the district is facing now they weren’t even on the radar in 2019-20. COVID-19 forced every student into isolation in spring 2020 and bouts of isolation due to quarantine exposures, positive tests without symptoms and multi-generational families choosing to keep children home to protect older, more vulnerable family members. 

“[Students] haven’t had that practice to confront or address contentious things with people in person, or even an argument or a conversation or fractured relationship,” Gridiron said. “So it’s really kind of a reset for many of our kids and adults in relation to addressing these things.”

While students were home, many parents kept going to work, leaving students with more free time, much of which was spent online. The extra screen time fueled the emergence of new social media platforms, such as TikTok, which became known for “challenges” for kids to lash out at schools. In September, Cutler-Orosi Joint Union School District reported several incidents of vandalism to school property, specifically to restroom areas and drinking faucets at Orosi High school, El Monte Middle school and the Orosi Sports Complex. A few days later, deputies arrested a 15-year-old female student for her involvement in the crimes. Smaller instances of bathroom vandalism were reported across Tulare County and the nation. 

Other districts found and shared with staff a list of these challenges that changed monthly throughout the school year. The list included students flashing their genitalia, poking someone’s breast, defacing school signs, making a mess in the cafeteria and spray painting a neighbor’s fence. Visalia Unified reported students were also engaging in challenges to eat items that are resulting in students needing medical treatment due to severe illness, vomiting, seizing and even loss of consciousness.

“Social media has become a serious threat, in a sense, to the safety and well being of people’s psyche and humanity because of what has been perpetuated through social media,” Gridiron said. “Although these things may have been happening before, they weren’t encouraged to be posted and retweeted and shared as a challenge.”

Gridiron said the real indicator of student safety is how safe students feel VUSD campuses are. The state tracks school climate through its California School Dashboard and in 2021, the most recent year available, 86% of VUSD students said they felt safe at school and 88% said they were happy to be at school.

He said VUSD is developing a task force that specifically looks at social media, the impact it is having on youth, and how the district can respond and get legislators to look at it more intently. Gridiron said banning social media is probably not the answer, because making it taboo could drive students toward it. Instead, he said the goal should be to curb student interest and help students focus on the more positive impacts of social media, such as sharing experiences with family and friends and staying in touch with the world when students are forced to quarantine.

“We’re competing with social media and it’s almost impossible for us to win that battle because kids’ interests and their identity, in some instances, are associated with social media,” Gridiron said. “When we try and limit or reduce or change their use of it, it also changes their sense of belonging, their connectedness to something.” 

Gridiron will be providing a comprehensive update to the school board at its Feb. 22 meeting.

VUSD has also taken physical steps to improve student safety as well. While Measure A may not be able to fund a fifth high school, a major misgiving of the $105 million school bond, it is delivering on promises to improve campus security. As part of its project list, Measure A is slated to install entry cameras and electric locking mechanisms at all single points of entry at every campus. The locking mechanisms allow the district to automatically lockdown every exterior door by shutting down power to the school remotely when unauthorized personnel attempt to access the doors. Work on security installations began in summer 2020 and continues as part of modernization projects districtwide.

Preparing for the Worst

Visalia Unified parents may be the most vocal about their student safety concerns, the issue affects every school from the largest campuses within city limits to the smallest single-school districts in remote parts of the county. Of the 12 instances this school year, half took place in smaller school districts like Earlimart, Strathmore and Tipton. 

Another rural school, Sundale Union School outside of Tulare, was selected as the site for the Tulare County Office of Education to conduct a demonstration of its ActVnet, a web-based system that provides designated law enforcement access to a school’s cameras, site plans, classroom photos, and other pertinent data in the event of an active shooter on campus or other emergency situations. Local law enforcement, fire departments and other first responders gathered at the school last month and ran three live scenarios involving an active shooter or shooters on campus. 

School district personnel from throughout the county watched a projection of the ActVnet system as the scenarios unfolded. With each scenario, dispatchers from various agencies guided onsite law enforcement to apprehend the mock intruder utilizing the Sundale camera system integrated with the school’s site plan.

Last month’s exercises are the latest in the development of ActVnet, which was conceived by TCOE’s CHOICES Program in cooperation with Tulare County law enforcement agencies and other first responders. System developers are working to implement ActVnet at 10 Tulare County school districts, which include 32 school sites.

“We appreciate the support of the staff and administration at Sundale for allowing us to utilize their campus to demonstrate the latest developments to ActVnet,” said Tim Hire, Tulare County Superintendent of Schools. “Every California school is required to develop a safe school plan. This powerful tool takes those plans and converts them into actions in the event of an emergency.”

Tulare County fire, law enforcement, medical, and mental health agencies have expressed their universal support for the ActVnet program. Agencies that were available to take part in the exercises included the police departments of Farmersville, Lindsay, Porterville, Tulare, Visalia and Woodlake; the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; CalFire and Tulare City Fire Department; LifeStar Ambulance and Kaweah Delta Medical Center, and the Office of California Assemblyman Devon Mathis.

 

Assessing Threats

In addition to training with law enforcement to prevent school violence, TCOE is also training school employees on how to assess student threats. 

TCOE is inviting school administrators, counselors, mental health professionals, nurses and resource officers to register for the CHOICES Program’s Assessing Student Threats conference. The two-day training event will be held Monday, Feb. 28 and Tuesday, March 1 from 7:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. at the Wyndham Visalia.

The training will be led by John Van Dreal, a school psychologist and retired director of Safety and Risk Management Services for the Salem-Keizer School District in Salem, Oregon. Van Dreal now leads a consulting practice, working with school districts and communities on preventive behavioral threat assessment systems and operational security.

In 1999, he began the development and implementation for the Salem-Keizer Cascade Model, a multi-agency student threat assessment system considered by experts to be a leading practice. Through the collaboration, he worked daily with educators, law enforcement, trial court personnel, juvenile justice and mental health personnel in preventive behavioral threat assessment – the management of youth and adult threats of aggression toward schools, institutions and communities.

Van Dreal is the editor and principal author of the book Assessing Student Threats: Implementing The Salem-Keizer System, Second Edition. He regularly provides training and consultation to audiences nationally on threat assessment systems, preventing and mitigating human violence, school security and response options for violent intruder and active shooter situations.

The cost to attend the training is $125 per person, which includes breakfast and lunch each day. To register for the event, visit tulare.k12oms.org/159-213528. For more information, contact Frank Silveira, CHOICES Prevention Program Administrator for TCOE, at [email protected].

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