Certain topics bring pause to a conversation, change the mood of a dialogue and frankly are outright difficult to talk about. And yet, they must be addressed because only in confronting the issue and discussing the ramifications, can action thus be taken.

      One such topic that has become a part our regular jargon is the increasing prevalence of school shootings. In 2019 alone, statistics show that there have been approximately one school shooting per week in the United States. While those numbers are eye-opening, they don’t even touch on the numerous attack plans that officials have thwarted, both in the public eye and privately between school institutions.

During such a festive time of year centered on celebration, it’s certainly not a topic that many want to be reminded of or discuss. This isn’t a pleasant cover story but a necessary one. After all, this is also a time when families gather together and the devastating reality is that many families are still struggling from recent loss.

With the recent devastation at Saugus High School and not one, but two, school threats thwarted in Los Angeles in late November, it seemed a pertinent time to highlight the importance of school safety and measures implemented in response to these events. After all, no one should be afraid to get an education because of the possibility of threat.

Encino Enterprise talked to Dr. Dan Stepenosky, Superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District on the future of school safety, handling potential threats and the importance of focusing students back on teaching in the wake of tragedy.

Encino Enterprise: With the recent and ever-increasing prevalence of school shootings, what do you predict for the future of school safety?

Stepenosky: Ever-evolving practices and procedures.  The most important thing is developing a caring, supportive and connected school community so that students have a trusted adult they can reach out to if/when they need support and/or other students reach out to a trusted adult if one of their friends is struggling. 

        EE: Most schools now have an active shooter plan in place but when a whole shooting event can begin and conclude in the span of 16 seconds, how can you properly react?

Stepenosky: The best way is to ensure the gun never gets on campus.  We want to make sure our students are connected so if they face struggles they are not alone; they have support so that they don’t contemplate self-harm or hurting others. We have amazing resources for staff, students and families that cover a variety of topics at  https://www.community360.me/family-resources and 24/7 mental health hotlines on offer at  https://www.community360.me/crisis

EE: Today, more that ever, the world is dominated by social media and inundated with vast amounts of information. How do you know what is a credible threat, what to take action on and what could simply just be student angst?

Stepenosky: We have threat assessment protocols we go through, much of which have been researched and supported by the Secret Service and FBI.  We also work very closely with our LA County Sheriff’s Department. They have a special group of deputies especially trained in working with minors. We share any and all information that concerns us with them, and they conduct threat assessments.  Those assessments can involve a home visit and possibly a home search.

EE: After such a tragedy, how do you focus students back on education in such a hazy post- grief state of mind where math tests are the least of their worries?

Stepenosky: Such a challenge.  We launched an initiative district-wide three years ago called Student 360.  The program focuses on the six domains that help ensure our students will be successful in college, career and beyond in life.  

More information can be found at  lvusd.org/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&DomainID=4&ModuleInstanceID=24&ViewID=6446EE88-D30C-497E-9316-3F8874B3E108&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=4020&PageID=1

Plus, we added a graduation requirement called Freshmen Seminar.  It is a year-long class for all freshmen that covers topics like mindfulness, stress, anxiety, depression, bully prevention, suicide prevention, health content standards, study skills, organization skills, communication skills and much more. 

We also launched a district-wide counseling resource know as the Counseling Center which provides support for preschool students through 12th grade.  It’s open at night so that entire families can come in and receive extra support and resources. 

EE: What would you say to parents and guardians who are reluctant to put their kids in school for fear of this potentially happening to them?

Stepenosky: We care.  We care deeply about our student and staff safety.  We take everything very seriously, communicate early and often will all local agencies, and work to get support to any students in need.

Dr. Dan Stepenosky is Superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District and did his doctoral dissertation at UCLA on school shootings, visiting Columbine after the tragedy to interview the staff.