Yakima parents trying to pick their kids up early from school or volunteer in a classroom will be familiar with the hurdle of entering a school building. No one is allowed entry without first going through a waiting area, separated from the main school building, usually by a pair of double doors. Office staff buzz visitors through.
Some might find the extra step tedious, but local school safety experts highly recommend schools have one secure point of entry and area schools have adopted the practice. After all, it’s advice that you could save lives.
The possibility of a school shooting in Yakima is grim, but it is one that’s been on the minds of many parents and educators after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Concern has arisen around the police response to the Texas shooting. Police officers from the Uvalde School District delayed entering the building where the shooter was inside with students and teachers, some of whom needed medical attention, according to the Associated Press. A New York Times investigation found that 1 hour and 17 minutes elapsed between the time the shooting began and when four officers entered the classroom where the shooter was.
Local school safety experts said they are confident that Yakima area law enforcement officers would react much more quickly in a similar event.
“There would not be a situation like we just recently heard of. Our officers would be there immediately taking action,” said Sara Cordova, director of safety and security for the Yakima School District.
Shootings and other threats to school are possibilities that Chris Weedin considers every day as the project manager for Educational Service District 105’s School Safety and Operations Coordination Center, or SSOCC. Educational service districts are regional authorities that provide support services to schools. ESD 105 converts schools in Yakima County, along with Kittitas and parts of Grant and Klickitat counties.
Local schools can opt in to SSOCC’s services each school year. Weedin said about 75% of Yakima County Schools do so. ESD 105 collaborates with all local schools on safety issues, including those that are not formally a part of the SSOCC program, like the Yakima School District.
Weedin, along with other safety specialists, has spent years preparing Yakima Valley schools for potential threats using a three-part strategy of prevention, response and recovery.
Weedin said the majority of school safety efforts are focused on prevention.
“Prevention is where we want to live,” he said. “We don’t ever want to get to the response like Uvalde or Parkland or Columbine … So, we try to focus heavily on prevention.”
Prevention involves a variety of strategies, including building design. Having only one way in the building and keeping doors closed are simple, but effective precautions, Weedin said.
Weedin and his team also give active threat defense trainings to schools around the valley. In these trainings for the entire school staff, safety experts go over strategies for potential emergencies. Weedin said he gets people up and moving and teaches techniques like blocking the entrance to classrooms and finding escape routes.
Mental preparedness is another part of the training. Weedin said people sometimes need to give themselves permission to act during life-threatening situations.
The active threat defense trainings are just for adult staff members. The stress of such a training could be too much for some students.
“We don’t want to increase their anxiety,” Weedin said. “So, we have a different training we do for students.”
Students in Yakima School District schools practice safety drills for various emergencies like earthquakes, fires or lockdowns monthly, said YSD’s Cordova. Each school in the district has a safety plan that officials review annually.
Local safety officials said they are trying to build a culture of “see something, say something” into schools.
“That’s one of the ones that we really impress on the kids because they’ve got hundreds, thousands more eyes than the school staff does,” Weedin said. “They’re gonna see something typically long before the staff does.”
Sometimes, when a student or staff member brings in a tip, it results in a threat assessment on a student. Cordova said that during a threat assessment, district officials and staff will ask the student vetted questions to determine if that student poses an actual safety risk or not.
“The purpose of a threat assessment is not to keep a student out of school,” said YSD assistant director of safety and security Nate Henyan. “The purpose of a threat assessment is to identify what supports are needed to support that student.”
Henyan said the district plans to train additional staff members on threat assessments later this year. Increased awareness breeds tips, and Cordova said the number of threat assessments tends to go up as students think about safety.
Often officials learn through threat assessments that the student just does not know how to express their negative emotions in a healthy way. Cordova said she feels peace of mind knowing this process can lead to an upset student getting help.
A quick response is critical when a school shooting occurs.
Cordova said that school resource officers would likely be the first line of defense in an emergency. School resource officers are members of the Yakima Police Department or other local law enforcement agencies who work fulltime as on campus officers.
Through a partnership between YSD and YPD, these officers work to promote safety, build relationships with students and enforce the law, Henyan said. They also carry firearms. YSD has two SROs, one at Eisenhower High School and one at Davis High School.
The district also has security officers at its middle and high schools, who are there to enforce school rules, rather than legal ones, Henyan said. They are not commissioned police officers and do not carry firearms.
YSD is not the only district in the area with SROs. YPD Lt. Aaron Wuitschick said Toppenish School District was the first in Yakima County to have them and he worked as an SRO there for many years. Now, in addition to his patrol work, he is the law enforcement liaison for SSOCC.
Wuitschick said that in the event of a school shooting, neutralizing the shooter or shooters is the first priority.
“Our officers or deputies throughout the whole county are trained that once you are on the scene and if you’re the first one there — and there’s nobody, your next backup unit is more than a couple minutes away or a minute away or whatever — you’re going to take action into your own hands,” he said.
Cordova said YSD relies on its strong relationship with local law enforcement.
That relationship was put to the test on March 15, when a shooting occurred involving YSD students in the parking lot outside Zaepfel Stadium near Eisenhower High School where school had just been let out for the day. That shooting did not take place in the school building and the suspect fled the scene.
When staff learned of the incidents, nearby schools were immediately put on lockdown and YSD staff, including its technology department that monitors school cameras, were in contact with YPD. Cordova said officers from local law enforcement agencies arrived within minutes, and YPD and other law enforcement organizations had dozens of officers on scene. YPD led the investigation.
School staff then worked to reunite students with their families, away from the scene, Cordova said. The district is working ways to further improve speed and safety in its reunification procedures.
In the event of a shooting at a school, after the threat is neutralized, first responders need to provide medical aid to any victims. An investigation continues in the following days or weeks, Wuitschick said.
Emotional support would also be needed.
“We work really hard to just make sure that that social emotional piece is addressed as well at the end of an incident, because the trauma can be pretty lasting,” Cordova said. “And we just want to make sure our kids and families and staff are feeling safe and have somebody to talk to about how they’re feeling.”
Counselors throughout the district are available to talk, and community partners also have staff available, she said.
The trauma from the incident might not be contained to one school building. Members of the school community know each other as teachers move schools and students move up through grade levels. An emergency event can have far-reaching effects.