After an 18-year-old killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, police and school administrators in San Diego are working to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said when he heard the news out of Texas, he contacted local law enforcement agencies to make sure they were all on the same page and had their eyes and ears open to possible local threats. What’s equally important, Nisleit said, is making sure civilians know their role in stopping tragic incidents like this one from happening in their community.
21 Killed in Shooting at School in Uvalde, TX,
“If you see something, say something,” was Nisleit’s chief piece of advice. People behind the trigger in mass shootings often tip people off to their violent intentions with words or actions, according to Nisleit, but there’s a long history of reports of suspicious behavior being made after it’s too late.
“Somebody might know something, and they might be taking it as just an idle threat or somebody’s just blowing off some steam and they’re talking, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go shoot up the school, I’m gonna go to the mall and do a shooting.’ A lot of times they don’t report that until after the fact, so I really want to stress the importance; if you do hear anybody talking, whether you think it’s real or not, let us decide,” Nisleit said. “Sometimes it’s somebody who is really in a mental health crisis and our job is not only to keep that person safe, but keep the community safe.”
Bob Mueller, Director of Safety and Student Engagement for the San Diego County Office of Education (COE), works alongside school districts and law enforcement agencies to identify troubled students before they act. Mueller’s team has been coordinating active shooter plans for schools and districts since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Mueller, like Nisleit, said a lot of times behavior that could’ve been flagged as a precursor to possible planned violence isn’t reported until after a violent incident occurs.
“There are a number of warning signs, in addition to threat statements or statements where people know in their gut, ‘Well that didn’t sound right, that’s something we should check out,’ and unfortunately, after events like this we hear a full list of all of the warning signs that were missed,” Mueller said.
While threatening statements are a big indicator of possible planned violence, Mueller said a student acquiring guns or getting familiar with shooting them are also warning signs.
Mueller’s efforts in school violence prevention are centered on threat assessment teams, teams made up of school administrators, psychologists, counselors and resource officers trained following a research-based model that Mueller says has been proven to work in studies.
“The goal is, can we identify warning signs that often precede an active shooter event, or another act of violence, and then intercede before there’s a chance to carry that out,” Mueller said.
If the team is notified about a student who’s shown warning signs of planned violence, they’ll look into what those actions are. Mueller said students are also assessed based on their history, how they’re described by people who know them, like their parents, and whether or not they have access to weapons.
“As that picture starts to come together, we create a plan to make sure there’s safety,” Mueller said. “That plan, ideally, involves someone who will be a close resource – an adult that’s going to be readily available and go out of their way to be present in [the student’s life] and make sure that they’re on track. It’ll probably involve counseling. If we have any doubts about safety, there would be other measures in place to make sure the student doesn’t have access to weapons or things like that. Sometimes student discipline is necessary, but if we are intervening early enough, supportive interventions are best.”
Mueller said the focus is on identifying the underlying issues leading the student down a worrisome path, and hopefully correcting them.
Over the next days and weeks, Nisleit said his department and other agencies will be working closely and sharing intelligence. You might even see more officers in schools and at big events, like upcoming graduation, to help calm fears, according to the chief.
Little can be done to calm parents’ fears if shots do ring out at their child’s school, but Mueller said one thing that doesn’t help the situation is going to the school in search of answers.
“Absolutely the worst thing to do is go to the school,” he said. “The school is an active crime scene where police are doing their best to ensure there isn’t any potential for people to be harmed further. They’re looking, potentially, for the suspect or for additional suspects, and until they have the site secure, they have to treat everyone as a potential suspect. So, stay away from the school. Wait at home … the reunification point will not likely be at the school. It typically will be somewhere far away from the school where children are bussed to, then reunification happens at that point. There’s nothing to be gained from going to the school. That will complicate law enforcement and first responders from getting to kids that need help right away.”
The San Diego County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Paul Gothold, released a statement following the shooting in Texas, saying in part, "Every San Diego County school has a safety plan and procedures that contribute to maintaining a safe learning environment for our students. These plans are constantly reviewed by school employees, who consistently seek to implement best practices in maintaining the safety and security of our schools."