Mammoth schools to improve safety plans; public hearing on Feb. 28


The Mammoth Unified School District will refine its school safety plans in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., according to schools superintendent Rich Boccia.

Speaking at a school board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 24, Boccia announced a multi-effort ramp-up that would involve the Mammoth Lakes Police Department, the Mono County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, the Mammoth Fire District and other emergency personnel.

“This is the time to pause, step back and reflect on where we are in creating some next steps,” Boccia said.

The school district has a safety plan in place, but Boccia said he wants to have an updated plan in place by March 14. School administrators and staff would have an updated plan done by Feb. 18. Following that would be a public comment meeting in front of the school board on Thursday, Feb. 28, and a final plan would be done by Thursday, March 14.

Some of the new steps, said Police Chief Dan Watson, already are in place. For example, all MLPD vehicles now have master keys to the buildings on all three of the school district’s campuses, each situated in close proximity to the others.

The Elementary School is on Meridian Boulevard, the Middle School is next door, and the High School, on Sierra Park Boulevard, is just around the corner. The ballfields—the high school’s backyard, as it were—connect to the others.

In addition, Watson said he and the other law enforcement officers would take a walk-through at all three sites during spring break.

“We'll practice here on campus,” said Watson, who was among several invited guests who addressed the board during the meeting.

“Every potential first responder should be familiar with the layouts of each one of these campuses. Some concerns that I have is that the campuses are open; I'm not advocating that you secure them with fences and make them look like a prison, but it's easy for any person to walk in on any campus. That's true of most schools in the United States.

“Here, our schools are all located right next to each other and in many ways, that provides a lot of benefits. But it also makes it more difficult if you're going to evacuate. We have three locations that are potentially at risk.”

Watson, who worked for years as a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, cautioned the board about the realities, framing his remarks around the Newtown, Conn. School shooting disaster last Dec. 14.

“There's no way to guarantee that something like this can't happen,” Watson said. “It's important to remember what occurred in Newtown. Their school district had a very good plan, their staff had practiced it recently; the response of law enforcement was very quick—they got there in a matter of minutes. 

“Everything went as well as it could, and yet there were still 27 people dead. You can't criticize the school district there or the first responders, and yet it's still one of the worst tragedies in our country's history.

“We can't have any guarantees, but it is appropriate that we do whatever we can to make our schools safe and secure as possible.”

Leading the effort inside the school is Robin Davis, the district’s director of maintenance, operations and transportation.

Davis encouraged the school board and school administrators to reach agreement on a “new normal” in the schools’ updated safety plans.

“We're looking for specific things—the ease of access; we're looking at doors; hours of access; the visibility, the physical building, how it might be modified or changed to improve the security.

“Our goal is to make the staff and the students safer and to feel safer,” he said in his presentation to the board.

“Among some of the things we came across, the biggest thing was the human factor. Immediately after a tragic incident like what happened in December, our staff was at a heightened sense of awareness. They took security and visibility very seriously.

“But as we took our walks, we noticed that things seems to have gotten lax. Within a couple of weeks, people get comfortable again. Not that I'm going to put this on everybody, because it's generally a human characteristic—that as time as goes on, we look for shortcuts, ease or comfort over security.

“We're finding doors either unlatched or not locked, because it was easier to go in that way. On campuses we have a number of doors open for the ease of student access or for staff, after recess, to get students back into class.

“We need to get staff to really think what 'normal' is. Because of the number of incidents [in Newtown, Colorado, Portland, Ore.] we have a new normal. Things have changed and we need to put certain things above comfort and ease of access.

“Some of the things we noticed were keeping doors secure. For visibility, we looked at how difficult it would be to modify our entrances so that at each of our campuses, the office people can keep track of people coming and going.”

Davis said he is in the process of playing “Devils Advocate” with certain practices ongoing within the schools.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey, this door is unlocked. Why?’”

Meanwhile, Davis said he, Boccia and others are in high gear toward formulating a “new normal” plan that makes sense for Mammoth.

“As we get down the road,” he said, “we'll be looking and talking to people; we've Googled all kinds of stuff about things we can do; as we move on down the road this year, we'll look at possible small projects to improve security, visibility, securing doors better, and hopefully we can do that without having to wait for a bond—so that we can achieve it within the next year.”

Editor's Note: Because the Jan. 24 school board meeting was past the Mammoth Times' print deadline, this story did not appear in the Jan. 25 issue. This story, plus more coverage, will be in the newspaper's Feb. 1 edition.