September 25, 2018

Schools amp up safety precautions following Sandy Hook tragedy

When Sarah Shulkind, head of school at Sinai Akiba Academy in Westwood, was a child in Winnetka, Ill., a woman walked into the elementary school four blocks from Shulkind’s house and opened fire, killing one student and injuring five, as well as a college student. Shulkind was enrolled at another school, but she knew the second-grader who was killed. Even 25 years later, Shulkind said, the town has not really recovered.

The massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last week brought back chilling memories for Shulkind.

“Personally, and as a school leader, I take the safety of our kids so seriously,” said Shulkind, who assumed the job as head of school at Sinai Akiba this year. “I have my own child in the Sinai Akiba preschool, so I know what it is to give over your most precious possession to an educational institution. It is a very scared responsibility, and we have to take it very seriously.”

As the news of the killings unfolded on Dec. 14, schools across Los Angeles quickly sent out e-mails to parents, assuring them that their children were safe.

“We have invested heavily over the past few years in upgrading our surveillance system and the guards are trained to be diligent in the safety of our campus,” Rabbi Mitch Malkus, head of school at Pressman Academy, wrote to parents. “We are in direct communication with the LAPD and the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] about potential threats and we have procedures in place to lock down the building if needed.”

Many Jewish schools locally had already enacted strong security measures following the 1999 shooting at the North Valley JCC, in which white supremacist Buford Furrow Jr. wounded five people and later murdered a mail carrier. Even tighter security measures were put in place at many schools following the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Newtown massacre has schools reviewing those measures anew.

Sinai Akiba and the attached Sinai Temple have multiple security guards and a locked facility. The school also has a lock-down plan to address the kind of scenario that unfolded in Newtown. Sinai Akiba held emergency drills just last week, before the shooting, Shulkind said.

“Adults need to know what they need to do in an emergency, and the best way to do that is to practice, so they can shift into muscle memory,” Shulkind said.

The ADL holds regular briefings with schools and community organizations about security, and facilitates relationships between institutions and local law enforcement.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is preparing to launch a Communal Security Initiative in January, with a security-vendors fair for Jewish institutions. Federation recently brought on staff Jason Periard, who has both military and law enforcement experience, in a new post as director of communal security. Periard will act as a liaison between the Jewish community and local law enforcement and provide training to private security guards at Jewish institutions. The newly created department also will have an emergency alert system and a closed-data sharing site where registered institutions can log on to view potential security threats.

Working in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles (BJE), Federation and officials for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently visited local day schools to field test software that will allow users to conduct their own thorough security assessments. The visits included a briefing on emergency response.

“Part of that debrief included discussions on active shooters and precautions to be taken,” said Miriam Prum Hess, director of Centers for Excellence in Day School Education and Educational Engagement at BJE.

BJE has worked over the last several years to help schools win millions of dollars in Homeland Security grants for measures such as installing surveillance systems, replacing gates and fences, or changing locks so classes could be locked from the inside. There has also been training to teach staff to be vigilant, according to Prum Hess.

The Beverly Hills Police Department invited school leaders to a meeting on Dec. 17, where they discussed measures put in place to make sure schools are secure. The Los Angeles Police Department also this week announced a new program in which an officer will visit each of the city’s schools once a day, an offer it extended to private schools as well.

Throughout the day on Dec. 14, as the news from Newtown was being reported, the Jewish Federation of North America’s Secure Community Network kept Jewish organizations and schools briefed about developments.

Beyond assuring parents that children were safe, schools also sought to give parents guidance on how to help their children work through their feelings about the tragedy.

Schools advised parents not to expose their children to the saturation coverage in the media, and to assure them that they were safe. Schools circulated articles from psychologists to help parents guide their children through the tragedy.

As did many schools, Sinai Akiba held a program for older kids after prayer services, followed by smaller group discussions.

For younger kids, Sinai Akiba chose to let the children lead, opening discussions in classrooms by letting the children ask their own questions.

Teachers had been prepped before those discussions, and at the end of the day they again met with administrators and school psychologist to process what the kids had said. That meeting also gave teachers a chance to air their own emotions.

“In some ways, our teachers and administrators are experiencing this in a more profound way than the student body, because the kids are so young,” Shulkind said. “We wanted to make sure we’re taking care of our teachers, too.”