Fifty-three days into 2018, America has experienced at least seven major school shootings.
The number is more than double that when a broader definition is used to quantify the kind of violence that has rocked the country’s campuses this year.
In the days following the killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., voices in all 50 states began speaking out against the regularity of gun violence in schools. Locally, the parents of children from kindergarten through high school are nervous and they are afraid.
Lawmakers and citizens have spoken out about how easy it is to obtain firearms, how officials offering thoughts and prayers is a poor substitute for effective laws, and how the warning signs of a mass shooter in the making often go unnoticed or underestimated.
Woodland Hills resident Emily Allison, a mother of two, organized a meeting of parents, teachers and public officials at the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas on Feb. 20 to discuss possible changes local schools can make that will help identify potentially troubled students, prevent violence, and prepare faculty and staff for an incident.
“I’ve written letters, I’ve signed all the petitions, I’ve done everything I can. I felt useless and hopeless after the shooting in Florida,” Allison said. “In my dream world I would love to change our whole country and do some common-sense gun laws, but I don’t know if I can realistically do that.
“You always hear the stories about the kids that people knew this was coming, so let’s be more of a community and talk about it. Maybe we can talk to our schools about having counseling, making sure if parents have guns that they are locked up. Can’t we go forward with this to try and stop it before it happens?”
More than 40 people attended the meeting, which started with a presentation by Charles Dinse, a senior lead officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Topanga Division.
Dinse founded a program that offers schools advice on what to do in the event of a school shooting or other act of violence. He said he felt compelled to take action following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“That was enough for me. I went into my captain’s office and said, “We’ve got to create a program to help prepare schools for violence.’ From there it developed and got steam,” Dinse said. “I think law enforcement in general is really good at telling you how we’re going to do things, which doesn’t necessarily help the school. Since law enforcement isn’t on every campus, this program is an opportunity for teachers and staff to learn what they need to do to hold off a suspect for at least the first five minutes, to allow us to get there.”
In his presentation, Dinse encouraged schools to install a secondary alarm to notify students about an active shooter. He talked about how a fire alarm can be a hindrance in such cases. He pointed to the Parkland shooter, who pulled the fire alarm and opened fire on students as they left classrooms.
Dinse said children are protected from fires but somehow not shootings.
“No children have been killed in a school fire for the last 60 years, since the 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels (in Chicago), and how many children have been killed or hurt in violence on school campuses?” Dinse said. “Why haven’t we done anything extra to prepare for that? Like mandating schools have lockdown drills, have structured plans for violence, a secondary alert system.”
Allison considered the meeting a success as the attendees shared their thoughts and concerns about what should be done locally to prevent tragedy.
After the session ended she started a community organization, Parents Taking Action, to petition the Las Virgenes school district. She wants to implement new policies to identify and assist problem students, and to create more effective plans to help faculty and staff prepare for violence.
One local leader reacted to the Parkland school shooting by introducing a bill called the Juvenile Gun Safety Act.
State Sen. Henry Stern (D-Calabasas) worked with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office to introduce the bill, which would close a loophole in state law that allows people who committed violent offenses as minors to escape prosecution for possessing a firearm in violation of the law.
Senate Bill 1281 would ensure that anyone who committed a serious crime as a juvenile cannot have a gun even if their records have been sealed.
“People with violent criminal records should not be able to own or possess guns,” Stern said. “We need to close the gaps in our background check systems so that . . . minors who commit serious crimes cannot turn around and possess guns once they successfully complete probation.”
Under current state law, people convicted of battery, drive-by shootings and other violent offenses are often prohibited from possessing firearms—but juvenile offenders can petition to have their records sealed after they complete probation. Once sealed, gun prohibitions do not appear in a person’s criminal history information.
“This bill closes a dangerous gap in our gun laws,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. “We, as prosecutors, need access to sealed juvenile records so we can enforce existing laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of individuals found to have committed violent crimes as minors.”