SMC — If you are a Santa Monica College student, you may have noticed people in green vests walking with dogs around campus since school started earlier this week.
A regional team from the Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, an organization that uses dogs to help people find comfort following a traumatic event, was on hand with two Labradors, a mini-poodle and a Labrapoodle to give support and smiles to students and staff.
The group was also present this summer in the aftermath of the shooting where Santa Monican John Zawahri, 23, shot his brother and father, Christopher and Samir, and made his way to the college where he killed Marcela Franco, her father, Carlos Franco, and Margarita Gomez before being shot by officers from the Santa Monica and Santa Monica College police departments.
Standing outside the library Wednesday, LaWana Heald, regional director of the organization, said in the past few days various students have stopped to pet the dogs and ask questions about caring for their own pets, or how to volunteer as a member.
“The students are always happy to see a dog,” Heald said. “You see their faces light up.”
In light of the recent shooting that shook the area, college officials decided to establish new safety measures and training as well as crisis counseling for the new school year. The safety measures range from hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new consolidated phone system, booklets on how to prepare for an emergency and weekly training on emergency preparedness.
Michael Tuitasi, vice president of student affairs for SMC, said the school is still looking at what the needs are and assessing what to do for new safety measures. The college is also looking into ways to lock exterior doors remotely in its current buildings, and is in the process of meeting with companies.
“We’re taking this seriously,” Tuitasi said. “We always have been, but we want to make sure students and staff are prepared.”
Tuitasi said the college prioritized what was most urgent and that was notification within classrooms and training.
Earlier this month the Board of Trustees approved a $583,925 agreement with Nexus for an Emergency Mass Notification System that consolidates all the current school phone systems and sends emergency messages to phones, desktop computers, speakers and digital displays.
It was something the college was going to do eventually, but the item was pushed up after the shooting, Tuitasi said.
Emergency alert messages would be sent via phones to classrooms as well as voice notifications announced over the public address system, he said.
That’s in addition to notifications that are sent through the school’s Blackboard Connect notification system via e-mail, text and phone to the whole college.
Other measures include SMC police providing weekly training throughout the semester on emergency preparedness to anyone who asks for it, school officials said.
Training covers what to do in an earthquake, or an active shooter situation and what “evacuation” and “shelter in place” mean, Tuitasi said. Campus police helped create emergency procedure booklets for the school community.
There’s also a new task force made up of faculty, staff, managers and students that will make recommendations on ways to better prepare the college community, he said. The task force will meet twice a month.
Santa Monica College Police Chief Albert Vasquez said his department is looking to add more student cadets on campus this fall. There are currently 13 cadets, but he hopes to grow that number to about 20. The cadets patrol the campus and carry a radio, he said.
Vasquez is also hoping to recruit more officers for the force, which has diminished through retirement and attrition.
The college community can also count on crisis counseling help.
Brenda Benson, dean of counseling and retention for SMC, said the therapy dogs were part of the school’s efforts to reach students who hadn’t stepped foot on campus in the summer when the shooting occurred. The dogs have also lent their services after a mass shooting in Seal Beach in 2011 and an elementary school shooting in Carlsbad a few years ago.
“I do think it’s made a big difference and it definitely made a big difference right after the shooting,” Benson said. “[It] brought a lot of people comfort and relief.”
The college also wants to build two permanent memorials for the victims of the shooting: near the library and in the campus quad, she said.