The Garden Room at Vets Auditorium was filled slightly past seating capacity on Jan. 23 at 7 pm. The crowd was filling out cards, handing them over to the ushers like Alan Elmont, and turning in their questions for the panel assembled by the United Parents of Culver City to discuss school safety. Police Chief Don Pedersen, Superintendent of Schools Dave LaRose, and School Resource Officer, Al Casillas.
The newly-minted president of UPCC, Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin started the evening with introductions, and the offering that “As parents, we are all concerned about safety. After Newtown, we can’t not be.”
Stehlin introduced CCUSD School Board President Kathy Paspalis, and also noted the other board members present, Nancy Goldberg, Pat Seiver, and Laura Chardiet. When Pasapalis spoke, she offered her own connection – she is a native of Connecticut, and has many friends and relatives in Stamford, her hometown, just a few miles away from the scene of the terrible elementary school shooting that shook the country in December. “Truly, there has not been a day that’s gone by that I have not thought of this,” she offered, “and it happened less than a week after I was installed as board president. So, right away, I spoke with Dave [LaRose] and the police, and we had a plan in place, we knew what we would need to do if something happened at one of our schools.” Paspalis gently lead the room in a moment of silence for the victims of Sandy Hook.
Laura Jane Kessner took the role of moderator, facilitating the speakers and the panelists and each one of the panelists made an opening statement. Pedersen, the chief of the CCPD for the past seven years, began with what would shape to be the theme of the evening; CCUSD is one of the safest districts in the county or the state. “Everything I have heard other school districts considering adding on as a security measure over the last month has been something we already have in place.”
LaRose spoke at great length (offering his usual gently self effacing apology that he does speak at great length) about his commitment to community, and that his responsibility to the parents of the district and the students is one that he takes as seriously as his responsibility as a father and husband in his own family. “People don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care.”
Casillas, the least known of the panel, gave his take on being the officer at the schools, and how he cultivates “an open relationship with the kids, so they feel that can talk to me. If there is a problem, they know they can bring it to me without hesitation.”
The underlying issue of bullying was addressed thoroughly by LaRose, focusing on the Olweus anit-bullying training that the district has had in place for the last three years.
Most of the questions from parents had to do with specific infrastructural security measures; how many gates were open when, doors to the office, metal detectors or software id programs. While addressing these concerns, some of which were specific to particular campuses and not to the district as a whole, the superintendent spoke about walking through each campus in the district with an eye to security.
“We have lock down drills,” said LaRose, ” we have radio and phone contact, we have a real police officer (he gestured to Casillas) who was out signing autographs today he is so popular with these kids.” The physical aspects of security we deemed to be well in hand.
The more delicate issue of mental health resources was broached with equal candor. “The resources we have at the Youth Health Center are tremendous. Students can get individual counseling, group, counseling, family counseling, all of this free of charge, on campus at the high school.” noted LaRose. “The key is outreach; we are not the providers for everything, but we are the case managers. We can be the conduit for physical or mental health help for any of these kids or their families. The key is communication.”
While the UPCC began life as a political action group looking at school board issues, the evening saw them graduate to a broader level of community commitment, gathering resources and addressing concerns for the benefit of all. Meeting the need to gather and talk, many parents left with a sense of – if not peace – at least greater ease in regard to security at the local schools.