As some students prepared this week to walk out of school to demonstrate concerns over gun violence on campuses across the nation, administrators in Modesto assured that safety is their top priority.
Students at several schools in Stanislaus County plan to participate at the National School Walkout on Friday, according to online sign-ups. It's the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado and the third event since March tied to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Friday's walkout is set to be much longer than that of March 14: Students plan to leave class at 10 a.m. and demonstrate on campus the rest of the school day. Ahead of the March 14 event, Modesto City Schools administrators sent messages to staff and to student families regarding both protests.
Staff was told not to prevent students from participating but to remind them of the consequences for leaving class, such as possibly being assigned to attend Saturday School. Families were told, "It is our expectation that students will adhere to the attendance and behavioral guidelines outlined in our Conduct Code to protect their safety and the safety of others.”
On campus safety, MCS administrators said they work hard with staff, students and law enforcement.
"What we're doing — and this was happening prior to Florida — we're constantly evaluating (campus safety protocols and procedures) and seeing if we can improve," said Ed Miller, director of child welfare and attendance. "We're working on an overall collaborative effort, bigger than just the Modesto Police Department and Modesto City Schools, that will involve emergency services for the county and the Office of Homeland Security."
In recent years, law enforcement has held active-shooter trainings at Prescott Junior High, Davis High and Elliott Alternative Education Center. Typically, they don't include students, Miller said. At the Davis drill, students were brought in to play the injured. But routinely including students would serve little purpose and could be traumatizing to them, he said.
"At Davis, we spent four hours on the drill, and our role was lockdown, 30 seconds," Miller said. "The rest was all police. We don't need kids role-playing for four hours. I find those joint training exercises more about coordinating school and district administrators with law enforcement and emergency services."
Downey freshman Christopher Madrigal was in P.E. during a drill this year and went with his classmates into the gym, where they sat quietly. "Usually in classes, people have told me they, like, went under a table or hid somewhere, locked the doors and turned off the lights."
The thought of a campus gunman rarely crosses his mind, he said. "If there was a school shooting, I would feel safe here because they showed us a video on what to do and how to act properly," Madrigal said.
The drills for students are simply about locking down: getting students who are outside into the nearest classroom or other building, locking building doors, shutting off lights, staying away from windows, sheltering beneath desks. "In a way, that is our active-shooter drill," Miller said. "Police would come and take over the entire campus. Our job is lockdown, and that’s really it."
One Enochs student this week said the lockdown drills and security staff made her feel safe on campus.
Junior Emily Counter said she's learned a lot through drills. "Especially in my English class last year," she said. A teacher formerly in the military taught the students a few lessons to prepare for a real campus intruder. "I felt prepared. One thing he taught us was to grab something like a fire extinguisher or something nearby that we could use for self-defense if the person did come in the classroom."
Students also were told to get behind the door and along the same wall as the door so a gunman wouldn't immediately see them upon entering the room.
Classmate Olivia Murray said her Spanish teacher this year told students that if a door has a hydraulic closing arm, cinch belts around it tightly, making it harder to open.
The three students also said they have trust in their campus supervisors. Each MCS high school has five supervisors, district spokeswoman Becky Fortuna said, except Johansen and Modesto, which have six because of the layout of the schools.
(Click here to read a resolution approved Monday by the Modesto City Schools Board of Education in support of school safety.)
Among the supervisors' training, Miller said, are conflict de-escalation skills and building interpersonal relationships with students. "The more students you have willing to talk to adults, the safer a school is," he said.
Downey student Madrigal said he does feel comfortable talking with the "campos" at his school. "They keep the whole environment safe. They always go around in places that I never expect them to be, places where students could be. They're doing a good job on it."
Counter, the Enochs student, said there's "plenty" of security staffing at her campus. "It's a pretty big school, but I feel we have a lot of campos roaming around in the front, in the back, just throughout campus. I feel they keep their eyes open to anything that could be suspicious."
The relationship-building the campos do is one of the ways MCS works with students starting in the earliest grades to assess their needs, district officials said.
Each year, well over $1 million is spent by the district on mental health, including clinicians, psychologists and a school-based behavioral health prevention and early intervention program, Fortuna said. Schools also teach behavioral expectations and "restorative practices" designed to prevent relationship-damaging incidents from happening and resolve them if they do, she said.
"We're proactively trying to address student concerns and needs so we don't get to point where a student reaches into a backpack (for a weapon)," interim Superintendent Craig Rydquist said. "We’re investing on the front end, really teaching students what the expectations are."
Students at Gregori, Davis, Beyer, Downey, Modesto, Enochs, Central Valley, Oakdale, Waterford and Turlock high schools and Roosevelt Junior High plan to participate at Friday's event.
MCS school board members and/or district staff will be on each high school and junior high campus during the lunch period to meet with students, Fortuna said. "During this time, students may ask questions related to school safety, provide suggestions for improvement, or other related thoughts," she said. "This provides an opportunity for students to share their views and remain on a safe and secure campus, while not interfering with the instructional day."
Enochs students Counter and Murray said they considered participating in Friday's walkout but decided against it. The possible consequences from her school administrators outweigh taking part, Counter said; she doesn't want to risk her sports participation or the impact a bad mark on her transcript could have on her college plans.
Fewer local high schools — only Johansen, Ceres and Pitman — registered online for the first local event, the #Enough National School Walkout on March 14. But at least a handful of other schools, including Riverbank High and Somerset Middle School in Modesto, saw some students join in the 17-minute protest. The duration represented one minute for each life lost in the February shooting in Florida.
The second protest was the March For Our Lives, which included events in Modesto and Turlock on March 24, a Saturday. In Modesto, more than 700 people, ranging in age from babies in strollers to grandparents with canes, gathered at Graceada Park.
Enoch's Murray said that when she learned she could be marked truant for walking out of class on Friday, she thought, "Oh, never mind."
But to those who are determined to participate to make their points on gun violence, she added, "Much respect for them."