ARLINGTON – Gun control has been topping national headlines since a deadly shooting rampage at a Parkland, Florida high school where 17 people died, and the emotional wounds after the fatal shootings at Marysville-Pilchuck High School still simmering locally 3 1/2 years later.
Students in Marysville staged a rally in their community last Saturday with red targets and the question “Are we next?” to declare that they are angry, fed up and fearful attending school. They action on gun control and more mental health services.
The issue has generated talk throughout school hallways and government offices in Arlington, Lakewood and Marysville, with local leaders in daily contact with young people pondering what it will take in the short- and long-term to keep students safe, and prevent their own campuses from being the next Parkland, Florida or M-P.
Police Chief Jonathan Ventura recognizes that school shootings are a sensitive subject.
However, he said, “I think it’s good that we have these discussions and there’s a lot we can learn from these incidents,” Ventura said. “If not, we will repeat mistakes.”
For background, Ventura served in the Navy, and has been in law enforcement for 20 years in Arlington and California that included duties as a school resource officer and active shooter instructor.
Ventura doesn’t advocate for or against guns.
“The knee-jerk reaction is to immediately go after guns and gun control,” he said.
From Ventura’s standpoint, he believes the bigger topic is to look more at the root causes of what sets off a student or individual to target a school.
“We’re missing the root cause, which is the mental health issues and degradation of morals, values and other societal issues,” he said.
In the short, and not specifically just Arlington, law enforcement and school districts need to main strong partnerships and consult with each other regularly on issues of campus safety and security.
In general he also said the U.S. needs to “harden targets.”
Public places such as airports, courts and government building have security checkpoints with metal detectors, he said. So should schools.
“That’s the logical thing to me to better secure our schools,” said Ventura, a common site among California schools when he worked in law enforcement in that state. He acknowledges that security upgrades could be costly for the district.
He added that schools should be single-entry with a surveillance camera that monitors all comings and goings, with exit doors on campus shut and locked during school hours.
“We don’t need schools to be prisons or impenetrable fortresses, but there has to be some kind of screening” he said.
Arlington Public Schools last year identified specific short- and long-term actions for safety and security, Superintendent Chrys Sweeting said. Some were put in place immediately such as installing a gate at the Post Middle School campus entry and removing shrubbery to eliminate hiding spots.
“Other actions were embedded in the school bond proposal such as secured entryways and video cameras,” Sweeting said.
One of those security projects the bond measure that failed last month would have funded was upgrades to the foyer at Arlington High School that leads into the cavernous commons area and classrooms beyond.
The project would fortify the entry to be more like walking into an airport single-point check-in area, similar to the type of secured entry at the new Lakewood High School.
The district has safety and security protocols that they assess continually for improvement, and trained staff to address potential mental health, depression, bullying and other issues.
For example, she said, “We have a practice of conducting student safety assessments when needed.”
A SafeSchools Alert tipline is available on the district and all school websites and is monitored 24/7 for students, staff, parents and community members to inform us of any concerns.
“If anyone sees or hears something, they can alert us immediately,” Sweeting said. “Students can also tell a teacher, counselor, principal or other trusted adult.”
She said the district maintains a strong partnership with Arlington Police, Arlington Fire and other first responders who help support them during emergency situations.
“They are critical partners in our safety and security planning,” Sweeting said.
On the mental health front, Ventura pointed out that the state Legislature in 2016 passed an extreme risk protection order law.
The order directs a person to temporarily surrender their firearms and concealed weapons license if deemed to pose a significant danger to themselves or others.
If Florida had such a law, the shooting tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School may have been prevented, he said.
Concerned family, friends and classmates can intervene in the event of someone who is suicidal or bent on destruction, and may be the ones most likely to pick up on the warning signs of a “lone wolf.”
An effort building interest in Arlington is fathers – some of them former military veterans – who want to help the school system by volunteering as hall monitors.
“One of the good sides of the tragedy is more involvement,” Ventura said.
Student safety was utmost on the minds of school district administrators when they planned and designed the new Lakewood High School.
The school controls comings and goings through a single-entry access point, and a contained room like an “airlock” before anyone can enter
Once school starts, the doors auto-lock other than the front door, Superintendent Michael Mack said.
The system uses keycards and keycard readers at strategic locations on each floor in the north and south wings that any teacher can activate to lock down the entire building during or after hours. “It’s working great,” said Dale Leach, director of Learning Support and Facilities.
“We just finished a successful lockdown test after school. It gives you that 30-40 critical seconds to hit that alarm and keep people safe.”
Mack said he wants a welcoming environment that is as safe as possible.
“I’m not a fan of metal detectors and barred windows,” Mack said. “I don’t want a prison, and kids don’t want it either.”
Lakewood was one of the first school districts to join ACEs through the Snohomish Health District. The group deals with adverse childhood experiences causing toxic levels of stress, and seeks ways to deal with significant hardships, poor mental and physical health, and low achievement.
Mack and Leach are cognizant that other schools want more security features, a cost that will require more state and federal funding.
Mack said students are planning to join in a nationwide 17-minute walkout on March 14, which marks the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Fla. attack.