By Madalyn Amato, Brandon Killman and Roxanne Reeves
On February 14, 2018, the world was rocked yet again by a national tragedy. Seventeen young adults were dead, their existence ended by one person, former classmate, Nikolas Cruz. Since then, students across the country – and in Fullerton – have pledged “#neveragain.” But how certain is that promise?
How prepared are students in the area for a school shooting? Do they know what to do? How would they respond?
Inside Fullerton sought to find out through a random sampling of students at Fullerton College, Cal State Fullerton, and two Fullerton Joint Union High School District schools.
All but three of the dozen students interviewed said they feel unprepared to face the harsh reality of a shooting – despite drills conducted at their schools and reading materials distributed on campus. Some students said they haven’t attended drills either because they were absent or the drill happened at a time they’re not in class.
About 150,000 students – scattered across at least 170 primary or secondary schools – were faced with a school shooting since the 1999 Columbine High School attack, according to a Washington Post analysis updated in March. What’s more, according to an Inside Fullerton analysis of the data, more deaths and injuries resulted from school shootings in the past few decades, as compared to previous decades.
Still, the likelihood that a student will be involved in a fight at school is 1 in 7, whereas the likelihood that they will be involved in gun-related violence is 1 in a million, according to a 2004 study released by the Secret Service and the Department of Education.
That’s partly what made copycat incidents and threats after the Parkland shooting so alarming. Just days following Cruz’s slaughter, an unidentified former student of Cypress College threatened a similar attack. He was apprehended in time to prevent the shooting, but the incident served as a chilling reminder of the potential for tragedy closer to home.
Both Cypress College and its sister school, Fullerton College, conduct drills that involve staying in place and discussing safety measures with students. Fullerton College is home to more than 28,000 students per
academic year who are spread out across a large campus. At the heart of the campus is the quad, where students gather to lay in the sun, study for their exams and hang out with friends. If the serenity of this scene was ever shattered by gunshots, some students say they feel poorly prepared.
“I personally wouldn’t know what to do,” said Justin Ramirez, 18, a sociology major.
Jason Smith, 21, a child development major said he tries not to think about such a tragedy happening: “I wish we didn’t live in a world where this was [even] a topic.”
To prepare, Fullerton College uses the “Run, Hide, Fight” model adopted by schools across the country; Regroup, a mass messaging system to spread information across the campus quickly; assistance in sharing alerts and updates from the North Orange County Community College District’s communications staff; and two drills a year, according to Campus Communication Director Lisa McPheron.
“Every time [a school shooting] happens, it reverberates around the country,” she said. Drills, a preparation video and other resources are intended to help students and staff feel more confident about what to do, she added.
Sara Habeck, 18, an English major, feels that the school’s plans would work if you’re inside a classroom. She questions the effectiveness for folks enjoying sunshine in the quad: “Oh good luck, fight for your life.”
“No one takes [the drills] seriously,” she added.
For instance, during a campus drill in April, few seemed intent on learning about what to do. Some people chatted with each other on the quad, laughing occasionally, while others checked their phones, waiting to go back inside.
Just up the road from Fullerton College, California State University Fullerton sits on 236 acres of land just off the 57 Freeway. Much like students interviewed at its feeder school, students at the university said drills aren’t cutting it.
Janisha Vargas, 21, said she does “not at all” feel prepared: “ I just think that with the drills that they do have, people just walk outside and that’s just it. They should do more hands-on training for students where they are actually doing something.”
Some students recalled emails they had received about what to do.
Beatrice Torres, 21, said, “Sometimes in campus-wide emails, they will distribute some information about what to do, and it’s only if [a threat] happens to another school, honestly.”
Karina Bermudez, 20, said her dad and some of professors have talked to her about what to do: She would “close the door and lock it. Put something as heavy as possible against the door and get as low to the ground as possible. Then, you are going to want to barricade yourself and your classmates to block the attacker.”
Scott Wiley, captain of the CSUF Police Department, said the school collaborates with other police departments to prepare. “Once every two years, we do a full scale active shooter drill. We include the local fire department, Fullerton PD we’ll send out officers — Placentia and Brea [do], too, — because they will most likely help us as first responders,” Wiley said.
Forty-two years ago, CSUF became a part of the statistics when an employee of the school, Edward Charles Allaway, shot nine people and killed seven.
“We have never stopped thinking about the event that happened in 1976,” Wiley said. “Definitely through the last couple of years, there is much more of a need for the public to want to do this training…Administrators are opening up a lot more doors for us — before they were a little hesitant. There are still people in the library that work there that were actually at the shooting, and they are the people that are asking for the training.”
Students at Sonora High School, part of the Fullerton Joint Union district, echoed the need for more training.
“Not sure what I’d do” if confronted with a shooter on campus, said Lucas Hoefer, 18. “I would have a general idea of what to do that moment but no idea what I could do that would help me in the long run other than hiding and staying quiet.”
Maria Urias, 18, said, “I would probably just cry and block the door.”
“I don’t cry in serious situations. I just get very quiet,” said her friend, Elissa Luna.
Urias added: “If someone were to die I wouldn’t, couldn’t respond.”
Fear would freeze Hoefer, too. “I would be scared for my life. I would be in total shock,” he said, “I would probably be preoccupied with my friends, trying to also get a hold of my family.”
Students’ recollections of preparation by the school were vague. For instance, Hoefer said he recalls “a little bit, nothing I can remember.”
He suggested the school or district provide “proper instruction and…more information… an actual collective” of exact steps that should be taken.
Adam Bailey, the principal of Sonora, said the school conducted two active shooter drills this school year: One in the Fall and one in March, which happened during students’ break time – a time when they’re “vulnerable.”
Still, Bailey, said it’s an issue if students don’t remember what to do and he vowed to take action.
“I think, if they can’t remember the March…drill, then that’s a problem to me. It’s important to me that our students and staff feel safe here. [If more information and training] is what they want, then that’s what they will get,” he said. “There are things we can do to show that we do care. We have to increase safety.”
He said the school does trainings for students and staff to reinforce concepts such as “Run. Hide. Fight:” “We have trained all of our staff twice. Training happens two days before the new school year starts. At the beginning of the school year, we have school safety day. Our school resource officer…and I, we go to classrooms to talk with students about safety measures.”
The Parkland shooting was a wake up call, reinforcing the need for schools to take precautions, Bailey said.
“When something like this happens, it’s a tragedy and we have to honor them. I look at that tragedy and can’t but help think of what I can do…here [for] my students and staff,” he said. “While I’m talking…I am also
looking at our security cameras on campus. I can see what is happening around this campus, which makes me feel good, but I know it’s not enough.”
About four miles south, administrators at Fullerton Union High School also seem to be taking measures such as encouraging students to report suspicious activity, providing training on response tactics such as assembling in large groups and shooter diversion, and requiring doors be locked during class periods, according to Hamid Rodriguez, 18.
One student – whose parents could not be reached for comment – expressed feeling “very prepared” but could not elaborate on specifics. “The staff is very involved” in preparing students, said Zubi Dass, 17.
Meanwhile, students at Fullerton Union have been involved in the #neveragain movement: More than 100 participated in a national walkout in March to protest gun violence. The challenge is to raise as much awareness about active shooter preparation.
Rodriguez said: “I don’t know that I feel prepared, but I feel like my school is slowly doing things to make us feel safer.”
That feeling was echoed by students and staff on several campuses. The fact that Cypress College shut down its campus and thwarted a potential attack within three hours of receiving information about it is a hopeful sign: “That’s exactly how the system is supposed to work,” said McPheron.
Whether students will take it upon themselves to prepare remains to be seen.