By Emily Rasmussen and Daniel Ritz
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a fabricated scenario given to law enforcement, school and Dana Point city officials for a school safety drill:
It’s 7:50 a.m. on Friday, April 20 and students are rushing into the Dana Hills High School office reporting that gunshots were heard from the east area of the campus. A campus supervisor radios that there is someone shooting with a rifle from the roof by the tennis courts towards people in the parking lot and at the street. The campus supervisor also reports that multiple cars have collided on the corner of Acapulco Drive and Golden Lantern.
Within minutes, students are fleeing the mall area and taking sanctuary in the office, due to shots being fired in the mall area of the school. There are reports that numerous students are shot. After the initial shooting, the shooting stops.
This is the frightening scenario that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) and the city of Dana Point are using as an example on how to respond to a campus emergency such as a school shooting. The scenario exercise was planned before the Parkland, Florida shooting on Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead.
Although this scenario of a school shooting at Dana Hills High School is fictional, it is a fear that has besieged student’s minds nationwide.
“Whenever I’m in class, I’ll be zoning out, and I’ll catch myself thinking about what I would do if a shooter came in, like where I would hide,” Olivia Fu, a senior at San Juan Hills High School (SJHHS), said. “It’s a very real threat that I realized became normalized when it shouldn’t be—it’s serious and very relevant to us, it’s not an abstract idea.”
Fears and frustrations of students such as Fu have prompted a nationwide, student walk-out set for Wednesday, March 14 to protest gun violence. Students in South Orange County, including Dana Hills High School and SJHHS, plan to take part.
“We want change and we have the power to achieve that change,” Fu, a co-organizer for the SJHHS walk-out, said.
Although the SJHHS walk-out will remain on school campus, some 560 students are planning to participate and Fu expects more will join. Fu, 18, said that though many walk-outs are pushing for a specific gun-related policy, the walk-out at SJHHS is intended to be a non-partisan demonstration, which will include a moment of silence for the Parkland, Florida victims.
“There needs to be some sort of change, we’re just not specifying what that policy change should be,” Fu said. “We’re really trying to make our voices heard, we may be young but we’re powerful. A lot of us can vote and students are a real force.”
Students from nearby high schools in CUSD are making a coalition of walk-out organizers, in hopes of keeping the momentum. Some of the students may use the hashtag #SOC4Change (South Orange County For Change) during the walkout on March 14, Fu said.
Some of these walkout coalition students include Olivia Drury and Maddie Grimes, both juniors at Dana Hills High School, who are organizing their school’s walkout.
“We want victims to feel supported. This is all about promoting our main initiatives which are school safety and gun violence prevention. I don’t know too many people that are against that,” Drury said.
The Dana Hills walk-out, which has been promoted on social media, is expected to draw hundreds of students. Taking place in-between classes—on school grounds—the Dana Hills walk-out Drury and Grimes are organizing will gather students for 17 minutes in honors of the 17 students murdered during the Florida shooting victims. They explained that there will be a moment of silence, in recognition of the victims of every school, gun-violence incident. They will also be hosting a discussion about how to contact local, state, and federal elected officials in an effort to make a lasting, legislative impact in addition to their participating in their walk-out.
Drury and Grimes, who have set up a www.gofundme.com account to raise the funds necessary for postage to send letters to local, state and federal representatives from Dana Hills students, spoke to Dana Point Chief of Police Services Lt. Russ Chilton prior to the walk-out.
Lt. Chilton said that his informal sit-down with the Dana Hills juniors was focused on their concerns about safety as well as discussing the lasting impact of their efforts. In a culture of rapidly decreasing attention spans, Lt. Chilton encouraged Drury and Grims to become a part of the civic process and enable their work to have a truly lasting impact.
“We don’t want to impede on any of our peer’s education if they choose not to participate,” Drury said. ‘We don’t want to do something promoting safety and awareness, by doing something unsafe and disrespectful.”
In accordance with state law, CUSD will not discipline students who choose to assemble, provided they adhere to district and school guidelines including, but not limited to: all activities must be peaceful and respectfully, and at no time may students leave the campus, CUSD Chief Communications Officer Ryan Burris said in an email on March 6 to district staff, families and students.
“While CUSD supports the rights of our students to express their beliefs under the state and federal First Amendment rights, as a district we are not sponsoring or advocating any participation in demonstrations,” Burris said in the email.
Drury and Grimes voiced that they do feel that their schools are safe and they feel supported by the district; but the walk-outs are symbolic of taking responsibility for their own safety and ensuring the protection of what Grimes called an “essential experience of your youth.”
“I was watching things like Sandy Hook happen and feeling empathy as a young student. I was calling for action, but not taking any,” Drury said, speaking on what motivated her to organize this event at Dana Hills.
“School is something you need to do to grow, and we want to ensure we feel safe (getting our education), and that our leaders know how important this is to us,” Grimes added.
Ensuring students are safe while receiving their education is the issue being tackled by multiple organizations that met at the CUSD office on March 1 to exercise the fabricated school-shooting scenario. The organizations that met to discuss their plans were: Dana Point Police Services, Orange County Fire Authority, OCSD SWAT, OCSD Bomb Squad, OCSD Juvenile Services, OCSD Air Support, Coroner’s Office, CUSD and Dana Point city manager and staff.
“The relationship between the school sites and (OCSD) is incredible,” CUSD Chief Communications Officer Ryan Burris said. “Each school resource officer knows every inch of the campus, they know each of our principals.”
For nearly three hours, the exercise went over how procedures would play out in real time, Burris said.
“100 percent of the time there’s always something to learn and to take away,” Burris said. “This time there was a lot of discussion of what reunification of students and parents would look like, which is helpful if you have a situation where you’re evacuating to kids to a different site.”
The scenario contains details of the amount of victims and first responder responses, the details of the suspects and the OCSD’s findings of an early investigation.
“Through that engagement and dialogue, we can assist each other in seeing the strengths and weaknesses (in our plans), what to reinforce and what to make better,” Burris said.
At the CUSD board of trustees meeting on Feb. 28, Superintendent Kirsten Vital said that there have been procedures in place for school shootings since the Columbine shooting in 1999 and a school safety task force has been in place since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
Going forward, Vital said that the school district—one of the first school districts in the county to have a counselor at every school—is working to build a mental health task force to increase mental health services.
“The work of our counselors, school psychologists and intervention specialists is essential to the health and happiness and future success of our young people,” Vital said.
The task force is still in the process of being formed, Burris said.
“This is a crisis from a lot of different expert’s perspectives and we will be building engagement in discussion on our mental health: social and emotional,” Burris said. “And, how to increase capacity for that stuff—we spend nearly $4 million a year for support in our schools and it’s not enough.”
At the next CUSD board meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 14, there will be a presentation on school safety at the CUSD office at 33122 Valle Rd., San Juan Capistrano.