A mother’s concern about safety at Desert Vista High School and a disagreement over a resolution against gun violence in schools highlighted last week’s meeting of the Tempe Union High School Governing Board.
It marked the board’s second consecutive regular meeting where school safety dominated the discussion.
And while the district’s top safety official on March 7 gave an overview of measures that have been taken to protect students, Ahwatukee resident Shannon Shelby, the mother of a junior, last week expressed concern about several issues at Desert Vista.
Shelby noted that building’s doors can be locked only from the outside. She said a teacher or staffer trying to protect students from an outside threat can lock the doors from the inside, and must risk exposure to that threat in trying to secure the premises.
Shelby also said she has heard numerous rumors about some students carrying guns in their backpacks to school and asked the board to consider installing metal detectors.
She also said there are too many access points into the high school and urged the board to consider closing them.
Although the board cannot comment during the part of the meeting reserved for citizen comments, President Michelle Helm told Shelby that Superintendent Kenneth Baca would contact her.
The board voted 4-1 in approval of a resolution calling on local, state and federal officials “to prioritize the protection of students and school system employees from gun violence on campus.”
The resolution urged legislation that, among other things, “more effectively regulates access to firearms, especially by youth and those experiencing mental health issues, and urgently address access to firearms capable of quickly producing mass casualties” and provide more funds “for capital improvements shown to increase safety and security.”
The sole vote against the resolution was cast by Brandon Schmoll, the only Ahwatukee resident on the board.
He tried unsuccessfully to change some of the resolution’s wording, including a broadening out of the declaration to include all violence and not just gun violence.
“There is all kind of violence in a school,” Schmoll said, noting the prevalence of bullying on many campuses.
That drew an angry rebuke from board member DeeAnne McClenahan, “We don’t have an epidemic of violence; we have an epidemic of gun violence in our schools.”
Schmoll also said he didn’t like the idea of the board “telling the Legislature what we want them to do.”
“This is kind of a fluid situation going on with the State Legislature and the governor,” he said, citing the resolution and adding, “There are a few things in there that is not quite as forward-thinking as I wish it would be.”
McClenahan noted that the resolution, which has been circulated by the Arizona School Board Association to all districts in the state, “would not override any laws. This is not even a policy, just a statement by the board.”
“We want our elected officials to take action and do something to prevent gun violence in our schools,” she added. “It makes sense for us to go public and say how we feel about this topic.”
The board’s vote came hours after Gov. Ducey introduced several measures he said would enhance school safety, but Ahwatukee state Sen. Sean Bowie said the same day he doubted anything would be enacted this session.
“My initial impression of the governor’s plan: While there are some good elements included, like more investment in school counselors and “enhanced” background checks, the plan falls far short on two elements that have broad bipartisan support, which are a closing of the gun show loophole and a ban on bump stocks,” he told constituents in an email.
“Both measures have 70 plus percent support among voters, and it’s what we’ve been hearing from the March for our Lives students and even our own constituents,” Bowie said.
“I imagine at least several of my Republican colleagues will be opposed to ANY gun safety legislation that comes before us, so without Democratic support, it doesn’t appear that the governor’s proposal has the votes at the moment,” he added, saying “it may be a difficult route to passage this year.”
Tempe board members noted that they pass resolutions rarely.
The resolution they approved notes that “more than 150,000 students in at least 170 primary or secondary schools in the United States, including the 14 students killed on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, have experienced a campus shooting since 1999.”
Three weeks ago, John Meza, Tempe Union’s safety director, provided an overview of the “comprehensive layer to make us safe” that the district provides, stating, “One of the things I do is continually go through our sites and look at where are we vulnerable.”
“One of the major layers of security is control the people who can come onto a school site,” Meza said, saying all schools have “controlled gate accesses.”
He said the district has “invested a significant amount of funds” on “target hardening” with only a limited number of points of entry to schools, visitor signup procedures and automatic lockdown doors.”
He also said he is in the process of meeting with all seven high school principals individually as part of a “comprehensive vulnerability assessment” and that “we have great confidence in Phoenix Police Department and Tempe Police Department and our ability to work with them” to improve safety.
He noted that every classroom has a phone as well as silent panic alarms that connect directly to those police departments and that all school buses are equipped with cameras and radios.
Meza also said, “We’ve worked really hard on improving engagement with our security guards. We want our security guards to engage with our students and our public and our parents.”
He said the guards are being trained in “student risk assessments” to identify potentially troubled youth and that the district’s silent witness program provides an additional layer of security so that students can report classmates they suspect might be in need of help.
For the first time this year, he added, security guards also are getting basic training.
“We did not have basic training of security guards before this year,” Maza said, adding that part of the training include “throwing different situations” at guards to teach them how to handle the unexpected.
“There’s high anxiety with our parents right now,” Meza said.
Some board members expressed concern about individual aspects of the district’s measures as well as some concerns they had at particular schools.
Berdetta Hodge noted that McClintock High had no gate doors, and other board members were concerned that some schools have student lockers while others do not.
Baca said members of his student advisory council have been raising questions related to gun safety on campuses.
Board members also could not agree on how often students should be put through a full-blown drill.
Schmoll said, “I think it would be helpful to have a full-blown drill” and also suggested that hallways be equipped with directional signs to more effectively guide students during an emergency.
Board member Sandy Lowe worried about the impact of frequent drills.
“We’re creating a generation of very nervous students in our schools,” Lowe said. “I don’t think we should have drills all the time. I would imagine this creates a stress level in our students.”
Meza said, “With confidence and preparation, you decrease anxiety.”
And Helm observed, “If we don’t have safe schools, we won’t have anyone attending them”