Threat: Student had to shelter in place this week after a bomb threat closed the campus for several hours. Courtesy photo

The bomb threat came in to Samohi at 11:46 a.m. on Thursday. 

That call triggered a series of actions by teachers, campus staff, district administrators and the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD). The entire campus community was ordered to shelter in place in their respective classrooms and offices. Security and police secured the campus and conducted a full campus sweep. A little more than two hours later, first responders issued the all-clear and students were released, many to anxious parents who swarmed around gates hoping to collect their kids.

The plan of action came out of carefully orchestrated emergency plans developed and updated by school site councils with input from safety committees and ultimate oversight by the School Board, in collaboration with the SMPD, City of Santa Monica and Santa Monica College. The City of Malibu and LA County Sheriff’s Department likewise weighed in on the plan when it comes to Malibu school sites.

In compliance with 1997’s SB 187, ordering comprehensive school safety plans, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) offers a 46-page plan document on its website, available for inquisitive families to learn how the District plans to protect students and staff in the event of an emergency. Examples of plans include aircraft crashes, earthquakes, explosions, fires, floods, intruders, civil unrest, contaminated food and water, and so on.

But don’t expect to find many details in the District document.

“It is imperative that our site staff designations, procedures, maps and student health record lists are confidential within the school site so as not to publicize aspects of evacuations and procedures that could unfortunately be used to create chaos or cause harm by anyone intent on hurting students and staff,” SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati wrote in the preamble to the safety plan document currently available on the District’s website, dated Feb. 2018.

When it comes to bomb threats and threats of violence, the plan outlines 14 steps, beginning with attempting to keep the person making the threat on the phone as long as possible.

From there, administrators are asked to liaise with search and rescue teams to initiate a comprehensive campus search. 

According to the plan, shelter-in-place procedures can be activated by the school principal or a designee, and may be preceded by a full lockdown. In this instance, a school spokesperson reached out to clarify that “Samohi was on a shelter-in-place, not a lockdown. Students were able to move around in the building they were in, but not be outside.”

Shelter-in-place includes closing campuses to traffic, locking exterior doors and gates and directing visitors to exit the premises and seek refuge elsewhere. Meanwhile, students, staff and visitors indoors at the time shelter-in-place is ordered are directed to not exit the building.

The “bomb threat/threat of violence” procedures mention several scenarios that school administrators may enact, including “drop, cover and hold on,” “lockdown,” “evacuate building,” or “off-site evacuation,” but shelter-in-place is not explicitly mentioned in the document as one of the options.

“If a suspicious object or bomb is found, the School Administrator shall issue the EVACUATE BUILDING action. Staff and students will evacuate the building using prescribed routes or other safe routes to the Assembly Area,” the comprehensive school safety plan details. Fortunately, no such object was found and the threat was deemed a hoax.

“We follow our protocols for threats,” Drati said, describing the incident a few hours later at the Thursday, Nov. 3, SMMUSD Board of Education meeting. “We went into a lockdown, in which students stayed in the classrooms, and my understanding is that the students did very well. Marae Cruce, the new principal at Samohi, responded very well in communicating with people. The police department are [sic] taking these issues very seriously and they’re able to converse with our staff and really rule out the threat so people are safe. It is why we practice a lot of drills.”

At the meeting, Samohi Student Board Member Mira Wagabaza gave a report on the incident, but also mentioned concerns she and other student government leaders in ASB had about the Great ShakeOut earthquake drill the campus undertook a couple weeks earlier.

“On Oct. 20, ASB students participated as fake injured students to simulate a real experience. During the drill, we discovered that the facility and use department was still working in their offices in the music building,” Wagabaza reported. “They did not participate, which was concerning to students and staff because we feel like if they’re on the Samohi campus, they should be expected to participate in schoolwide drills. Otherwise the drill went very well and was thoughtfully executed.”

Wagabaza also went on to mention the shelter-in-place order that went out on Thursday in her statements to the Board.

“The police, security and admin did a campus sweep while students stayed in their classrooms. Fortunately, they did not find anything and the sweep took just over two hours,” Wagabaza said. “Students were then sent to lunch at around 2:10 p.m. and fifth period was cut.”

Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez thanked Wagabaza for her report and asked if everything went OK with the shelter-in-place incident, to which Wagabaza said it did.

Drati and other board members said they were concerned to hear that some staff did not participate in the Great ShakeOut.

“This is just the first I’m hearing of it, so I have to look into what happened there, why they were not included in the drills,” Drati said. 

“A concept of these drills are that it has to be a decentralized approach, because any of our schools could be cut off from the district office. They have to know how to survive on their own out there. Let’s just say if it was a real earthquake, this place was leveled and there’s no district office for them to call. They still have to operate,” he said, later adding, “So, it’s a pretty big deal. so I’ll look into that situation.”

emily@smdp.com

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