By Dr. César Morales, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
The mass shooting that claimed 21 lives at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas is the latest incidence of what’s become a horrifyingly common occurrence in our nation. Here in Ventura County, students, parents, and school employees are understandably scared. As the father of a daughter in our local public school system, I profoundly relate to those fears. And as Ventura County’s Superintendent of Schools, ensuring that all of our children are safe at school is my highest priority.
While I applaud the recent passage of a new federal gun control law that will help keep firearms away from people likely to pose a threat, it could have gone much farther. The law is noteworthy because it’s the most significant gun control legislation to be approved by Congress in nearly 30 years. Unfortunately, it fails to take more significant steps such as restricting the sale of assault weapons. And in the same week that the law was enacted, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that will make it easier for anyone to carry a gun in public.
In the absence of more substantial federal action on gun safety, state and local leaders are pursuing new measures to help prevent tragedy in our schools. State lawmakers are considering legislation that would strengthen background checks and prohibit people from carrying concealed weapons in sensitive places like schools. Other legislation that’s under consideration would require schools to report threats of gun violence to law enforcement and to provide parents with information about the safe storage of firearms. There’s also a proposed bill that would allow citizens to sue manufacturers and sellers of banned guns.
At the local level, we are fortunate that schools, law enforcement, and government agencies are all working collaboratively on solutions to a degree not seen in many other parts of the state. As a result of this cooperative approach, we have opened student wellness centers at many local high schools with more to come at high schools and middle schools throughout Ventura County. These centers provide emotional support and mental health counseling to help students deal with stress, anxiety, and conflict before things get out of control.
Wellness centers are part of a larger effort to create a school culture that lets students know there are caring adults they can turn to for support. Schools are also training staff members to recognize and respond to warning signs that a student might be considering an act of violence. For students who may pose a safety risk, the Ventura County Office of Education offers a variety of alternative education programs that provide more personalized and structured learning environments with extensive mental health support.
All schools have comprehensive safety plans, and many are going further by making their grounds and buildings more secure. This can include limiting entry points, adding fencing, and making classroom doors easily lockable from the inside. And while active shooter drills have become commonplace in schools, there’s a growing awareness that they need to be conducted with extreme sensitivity, so they don’t end up traumatizing the very students they’re intended to protect.
It’s also important that students know to speak up when they hear of a potential threat – if you see something, say something. All Ventura County school districts participate in a program called WeTip that allows anyone to anonymously report a threat at www.WeTip.com or by calling 800-782-7463. All reports are directed to the appropriate school officials who can notify local law enforcement as needed. Tips that help lead to a conviction are eligible for a reward up to $1,000.
It’s been said many times before, but bears repeating: no one should have to worry about their children being safe when they go to school. All of us in education are working to support students, identify threats and enhance security to ensure schools are safe places to learn and grow.
This column appeared in the Ventura County Star on July 3, 2022