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District officials with more than half of the 42 school districts in San Diego County said they do not collect and review official school safety drill reports from their individual school sites.
And by law, they don’t have to review them.
The state Education Code requires that elementary schools do at least one fire drill for every month school is in session. The minimum requirement for middle schools is four times a year, and twice a year for high schools.
But, that code leaves a lot to interpretation about how drills should be conducted, monitored and documented - with no requirement for districts to document or review their school site drills.
More than a quarter of the school districts across the county do not require any type of formal documentation kept either at the district level or school sites to track the specific time and date a drill occurred – or the amount of time it takes to evacuate or lockdown a school. Although, most of these districts said they keep calendars, agenda items, e-mails or other type of materials that document when a drill is scheduled to occur.
Some districts keep formal drill reports so school administration and district officials can better track needs for improvements. If - for example - an intercom isn’t working correctly or if a fire bell can’t be heard in the gymnasium, the form is a way of alerting district headquarters.
San Diego Unified, the biggest school district in the county with some 200 school sites, does not require a formal documentation – a situation district officials hope to soon change.
“We are not keeping track but what we are doing is monitoring from a far and what we want to do is a do a better job of that in the future,” said San Diego Unified School District Police Chief Rueben Littlejohn.
Safety drill documentation isn’t the only area of discrepancy across school districts.
“If you were simply to ask the question in California today how many schools even have school safety plans, not even talking about drills, but just a school safety plan to begin with, the answer is: ‘We don’t know,’” said state Senator Ted Lieu from Los Angeles.
The issue has come to the forefront of legislators’ attention after the horror of the Newtown massacre in which six teachers and 20 first-graders were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Many lawmakers across the nation want to know how prepared and practiced schools can be for something they hope never occurs.
In California, the law requires schools to develop and annually update their safety plans for prevention and response to school violence, natural disasters and other emergencies. However, NBC7 Investigates found that in the past 10 years, no California school district has ever reported a school for not complying with the Ed Code’s safety requirements, and no district has ever been fined for not following the law.
Lieu hopes to add teeth to existing legislation by requiring the state to publish a list of non-complying schools on its website, and authorizing the Superintendent of Public Instruction to withhold principal apportionment to districts and schools that fail to report noncompliance.
Since most districts aren’t checking safety drill documentation, NBC7 Investigates decided to check the records available.
We asked all 42 San Diego County school districts to send us their school safety drill reports for the 2011-2012 school year to find out how often they were practicing for an emergency. We spent two months collecting and entering the data.
Of the records we received from 11 school districts in time for our deadline, we could only find two school districts that documented each and every school safety drill required by state law at every site. Those districts were Grossmont Union High School District and Sweetwater Union High School District – districts with a lower requirement than elementary school districts.
“We believe that conducting drills and practicing with students and staff what has been learned from those drills is essential in maintaining school safety," said Catherine Martin, a Grossmont district spokeswomen.
At Sweetwater, the district said it did well on the survey because it values putting processes into place to measure areas for improvement, and it places safety as one of its highest priorities.
“Ensuring the safety of all students is critical to the Sweetwater Union High School District. One way that we do this is by conducting regular safety drills and then properly documenting them,” said Manuel Rubio, a district spokesman. “We realize that safety is a dynamic issue and Sweetwater wants to ensure that our students and staff are well-prepared in case of an emergency.”
In Cajon Valley Union and National School District, most schools did almost every drill but a few missed just one drill here and there – especially in months like August, June, December and March or April when summer, winter and spring breaks occur.
“Theoretically, every month that you have a day of school is a month when school is in session,” said Dr. Chris Oram, the superintendent of the National School District. “But, if June 3 is the last day of school, you’re not going to do a drill on the last day of school when it’s the only day.”
Oram was surprised that many districts in the county don’t require a formal documentation of their safety drills.
“The fact that we have the basics covered allows us to take a look at refining our safety plan and tweaking it a little bit,” Oram said.
Encinitas Union and South Bay Union district documented the fewest number of drills per school with several of their schools missing documentation for more than half of the required drills.
District officials with Encinitas Union School District did not respond to a request for comment except to say each of the school sites would instead provide a calendar of when their drills were done. No calendar was received.
South Bay Union School District said the schools with missing drill reports actually did the drills but they were not very good about documenting them until NBC7 Investigates began asking for the records.
“When we got the drill reports from the school sites to send to you, we looked them over and we said, “What? You only did three drills!?” said Assistant Superintendent Abdollah Saadat. “That’s the only way we can find out if their PA system isn’t working; is if they document the problem in the first place.”
Saadat said when the district went back to the school sites and asked about their drill reports, they discovered additional drills were done, just not originally recorded on the reports. The district is vowing to do better a better job documenting the drills in the future with more follow-ups to school sites and more details in reporting.
“The safety of our campuses is very important to our board of trustees and our community,” Saadat said.
In Coronado, where the school district does not document each drill as a practice, an outside consulting firm was hired to ensure Coronado students are as safe as possible. Former Navy SEAL Jeff Williams runs Strategos Consulting, a firm that works on holistic approaches to making school safe.
He doesn’t believe documentation of monthly school safety drills is what schools should value as the highest priority – but rather the day-to-day focus on changing culture to prevent threats.
“What I wouldn’t want is a check in the block,” Williams said. “I don’t want schools to look at this as something that they have to do every month, and that they just have to check a block when it’s over.”
Because of our report, two school districts – Dehesa School District and Del Mar Union School District – have said they plan to change district practices to include documentation and review of school site drills on a regular basis.
Also, Senator Lieu said based on our findings, he was going to begin looking into crafting some type of legislation that would make documentation of school safety drills a more uniform practice.
Two districts sent in their drill reports on the day the piece aired. The drill reports for Warner Unified School District can be found here, and a summary of Oceanside Unified School District’s reports can be found here.