School Climate & Safety

San Bernardino Shooting: Elementary School Used Common Security Measures

By Evie Blad — April 11, 2017 3 min read
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The man who shot two students and his estranged wife in the special education classroom where she taught entered San Bernardino’s North Park Elementary School through a common process Monday with approval from office staff, officials said.

Education leaders and public officials are now falling into a familiar pattern that follows most school shootings: asking why the attack happened and what, if anything, could have prevented it.

The alleged shooter Cedric Anderson, who was known to school staff, said he was at the school to drop something off for his wife, teacher Karen Smith, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said at a media briefing Monday evening.

It wasn’t until he got to her classroom that he revealed his gun, silently shooting and killing her, before killing himself. The bullets from the revolver also struck two students near the teacher, who were transported to local hospitals. One of those children, 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez, later died. Police did not identify the other student, a 9-year-old, who was in serious condition Tuesday morning.

San Bernardino City Schools Superintendent Dale Marsden told reporters the school was very safe, with controlled access and careful procedures. The district will review its policies and practices to look for lessons, he said.

North Park’s security measures look like those that are common at many elementary schools. Here’s a rundown.

Metal detectors are not common in elementary schools.

After officials revealed Anderson had concealed his gun and entered the school through routine means, members of the public wondered what could have helped school staff determine that he had a weapon.

North Park does not have metal detectors, police said. But most elementary schools don’t. Only about 1.4 percent of elementary schools reported random metal detector checks in the 2013-14 school year, according to the most recent federal data on school safety. That compares to 7.6 percent of middle schools and 8.7 percent of high schools.

Civil rights groups say high-visibility security measures, like metal detectors, can have negative effects on the school environment. And for schools that have relatively low incidence of crime, the cost of purchasing, maintaining, and staffing the devices may not be a priority compared to other needs, like curricular materials.

Elementary schools are the least likely to have on-site police officers.

None of San Bernardino’s elementary schools have armed security officers, district spokesperson Maria Garcia told the Los Angeles Times. She also described security on North Park’s campus as “very, very tight.”

In 2012-14, just 10.4 percent of elementary schools reported the presence of a full-time security guard or law enforcement officer. That’s compared to about 37 percent of middle schools and about 48 percent of high schools.

As Education Week detailed in a recent special report, the presence of police and armed security in schools has stirred concerns from some about overly heavy-handed discipline and possible violations of students’ civil rights.

It’s also not clear if or how a school-based officer could have intervened in Monday’s shootings, which occurred very quickly. And local law enforcement responded to the scene within minutes, officials said.

School access at North Park is controlled and limited.

As I’ve previously reported, school safety experts say controlling access to the building is one of the most important security measures a school can take. That, combined with clear and consistently practiced safety procedures, are more effective than costly measures like expensive equipment, they say.

San Bernardino officials said North Park had limited building access, which the alleged gunman was only able to bypass because he was known to school staff.

“Once the school bell rings, the only way into the campus is through the front office,” Garcia told the Times.

Such measures are extremely common. In 2013-14, 94.5 percent of elementary schools reported controlled access, compared to 94.9 percent of middle schools and 88.8 percent of high schools.

Photo: Betty Rodriguez, right, comforts her granddaughter, Giselle, during a prayer service held to honor the shooting victims at North Park Elementary School, Monday in San Bernardino, Calif. --Jae C. Hong/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.