SMMUSD HDQTRS — On Dec. 14, 2012, the news broke that a gunman had opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 people; 20 of them were children aged 6 and 7.
The murders in the school were preceded by the killing of the shooter’s mother.
Santa Monica is on the opposite side of the country from Newtown, but the emotional toll of the act closed the physical distance as parents who send their children to schools each day asked themselves the terrifying question: “What if it happened here?”
Within hours of the attack, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Sandra Lyon sent out a missive to parents to reassure them that the schools were doing everything they could to both keep children safe and provide resources for those impacted by the events at Sandy Hook.
Schools hold regular emergency drills that include lockdowns designed to prepare for any intruder that may come onto the campus, she told parents, and officials are stationed at the entrances to the schools to monitor who tries to enter the campus.
“Having regular drills is one of the best things we can do to ensure that staff and students can respond quickly when they need to,” Lyon said.
Fire drills are held monthly at the elementary schools, four times a year at the middle school and twice at the high school level, according to Mark Kelly, director of student services.
Schools also hold two lockdown drills each year, and all participate in the Great Shakeout drill, which focuses on earthquake preparedness and search and rescue.
Santa Monica High School Principal Laurel Fretz reinforced the concept in a letter and call to parents, impressing upon them the importance of drills.
“We continue to practice because, though we never anticipate a problem, we want to give our students the comfort of knowing our emergency procedures,” she said.
School sites also coordinate with the local police department, offering up their campuses for active shooter drills so that law enforcement and first responders have practice in the actual sites they would otherwise respond to.
All sworn officers train for active shooters, both at the schools and in a training location in Santa Clarita, said Sgt. Richard Lewis, a spokesperson for the Santa Monica Police Department.
“The SWAT team trains on them all the time, and there are multiple SWAT team members on duty,” Lewis said. “We all know these tactics very, very well.”
Law enforcement officials across the country work not only to respond to emergencies, but to prevent them.
The Los Angeles Police Department sent out an e-mail Monday morning reporting that a 24-year-old resident of Pomona had been arrested Sunday morning at his parents’ home in Los Angeles after making threats against local schools on Facebook.
Officials also seized nine firearms, including rifles, a shotgun, handguns and ammunition from the residence. A search of the suspect’s home in Pomona did not yield any weapons or related evidence.
The tragedy at Sandy Hook has sparked a national conversation about gun control, and that has been mirrored within the Santa Monica parent community, said Patti Braun, president of the Parent Teacher Association Council.
People have been calling for stricter laws on automatic weapons, and longer waiting periods for gun purchases.
“My hope is that the national PTA can be involved in encouraging that,” Braun said. “I think everyone’s just in such a state of shock. It’s truly overwhelming.”
As for school safety, Braun puts her faith in the drills and safety measures installed at each of the schools, including security gates and technology to ensure that parents are alerted immediately to any kind of disaster.
“There are a lot of really great things in place,” she said. “There’s a reunion gate, and every year we sign emergency cards. Teachers are well trained, kids are well drilled. I feel good about that.”
After tragedies occur, it’s not enough for parents to be confident about their children’s well-being — students have to feel secure in their schools as well.
SMMUSD officials sent out information released by the National Association of School Psychologists to school sites throughout the district, both in English and Spanish, giving advice on how to broach the topic with children.
The first thing is to reassure them that they are safe, and to address their questions. Go over safety procedures, and keep an eye on children to monitor their emotional state.
When going over information about the incident, it’s important to consider the age and developmental level of the child, said Dr. Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.
“For older kids, we have to remember it’s not just seeing it in the news. Social media is playing a huge role. It’s important that we actively ask what the child is seeing, what’s on Twitter, Facebook or through texting,” Brymer said.
Making children aware of the family’s emergency plan, and establishing lines of communication in the case of a disaster is also critical, she said.
If families know someone involved in the Connecticut shooting or have experienced a major loss in their lives, news of the event could also take a broader, emotional toll.
“There are families here that have been through their own losses and tragedies,” Brymer said. “Even if they were not impacted by what happened in Connecticut, it might be reminding them of their personal experiences.”
One point on which many health professionals agree — turn the televisions off.
“As in any frightening situation, young children should not be exposed to the extensive media coverage of the event,” said Thomas McInerny, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “In other words, turn off the TV, computer and other media devices.”
At the request of President Barack Obama, flags throughout the school district will fly at half-mast until sunset on Dec. 18.

ashley@smdp.com