Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:20 AM ET, 01/28/2011

Overdoing school security

By Jay Mathews

Something happened during my recent visit to Los Angeles that bothers me. My wife and I were there to help out during and after the birth of our second grandson. That part went great. What troubles me was the handling of a shooting of a police officer in front of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills on Jan. 19, the day before the new Mathews, named Tom, was born.

Officer Jeffrey Stenroos, who was posted at the high school, survived the shooting because of his protective vest. The gunman fled. The last time I checked, it was still not known who he was or why he fired at Stenroos in the parking lot. The school was locked down about 11 a.m. Students had to remain where they were. Some were denied a chance to get food or a bathroom break for the next six hours.

That strikes me as a little extreme. The police appear to have searched and secured the school within the first couple of hours. They could have allowed escorted trips to the restrooms. But that wasn’t my principal concern about the way the aftermath of the incident was handled.

The authorities did not lock down just El Camino High. They locked down eight other schools in the vicinity. Nothing happened at the other schools the rest of the day, which is a relief in some ways, and in other ways not.

Nobody wants to fault the police for taking every possible precaution. I have raised in the past the issue of bomb threats, and the standard practice of emptying the school for a couple of hours whenever one is phoned in. Rarely are those threats legitimate, but no one wants to be responsible for children getting hurt the one time a real bomb is discovered.

But the measures taken on Jan. 19 in Los Angeles seemed extraordinary. Has there ever been an occasion when a shooting at one school was followed by related shootings at other schools in the area? If the wounding of Officer Stenroos had been the result of a gang clash, and the same gangs were present in other schools, extending the lockdown would make sense. But that was not the situation at El Camino High.

Sending more police to nearby schools makes sense, but suspending teaching and learning for every child for the rest of the day does not. Many teachers on the other campuses tried to make good use of the time, but the uncertainty and fear that comes with a lock-down likely diminished the chances of much learning.

Such decisions are balancing acts. I suspect some officials considered locking down more than nine schools, and some preferred to disrupt far less. I wish there was more research on the effects of these decisions. I have had trouble finding much written by school security experts on sensible alternatives. Am I wrong to think this would be a useful area for inquiry?

I want my grandsons to be safe when they start school, but I wonder if there are procedures that would keep them from harm at the same time maximizing their opportunities for learning. I think it is worth a look.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 28, 2011; 11:20 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  El Camino Real High School, balancing security and learning, lockdown of nine schools in Los Angeles  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: No Child Left Behind, perfection and caveats
Next: Pick TV's five best high school series


To their defense Jay, fear probably caused them to freeze their thoughts. They focused on the emergency and not the routine. I know from the armchair it looks silly, but then you and I were not in the midst of the chaos. I can only guess the pucker power going through the staff and security personnel.

I agree with the bathroom issue, but on other levels we need to just give the time to the moment.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 28, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

And now the rest of the story...

It has now been reported that Officer Stenroos fabricated this whole story. He accidentally shot himself.

Posted by: pacificocean | January 28, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Not only is it Too Much Security, a story today indicates the officer lied about the shooting. The police officer was a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department. How many layers of Police do we really need and how many layers are in LA? Does each have its own infrastructure?

Posted by: bobis_bob | January 28, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

And if they hadn't locked it down, and someone else got shot, who funds the lawsuit?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 28, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said there were early questions about Los Angeles School Police Department officer Jeff Stenroos' claims that an assailant shot him outside El Camino Real High School last week.

"There were some inconsistencies that emerged early on," Beck said Friday. "It was just recently that we were able to get accurate information."

Police announced Thursday that Stenroos' story of being shot was a concocted. Stenroos has been booked on a felony charge of filing a false police report and was released on $20,000 bail Friday morning.

Posted by: natturner | January 28, 2011 3:26 PM | Report abuse

You mean, it wasn't your PRINCIPLE concern, Jay. The Principal is your PAL. ;-)

I think locking down the other schools while a gunman who shoots at school security is on the loose, is a smart precaution.

I think school administrators who refuse to allow students to go to the bathroom need to see a shrink.

Posted by: lisamc31 | January 28, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

To add,

I didn't read the other comments before adding my own. The schools reacted as though there WAS a real gunman on the loose.

Better safe than sorry.

Posted by: lisamc31 | January 28, 2011 4:12 PM | Report abuse

If locking down the city is a good idea in this situation...why don't they do it for all of the other shootings in LA?

Posted by: pacificocean | January 28, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

The police thought they had an armed gunman running through the city near other schools. Locking down the schools is an ok idea. We had a situation where a bank robber was shot and killed on school grounds. The bank robbery happened several miles away but the police thought a lockdown was appropriate. Good thing they did; otherwise kids could have been at PE on the same field where the bank robber appeared.

Posted by: teach1 | January 28, 2011 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Schools in the vicinity of a shooting will often lock down to prevent an armed individual trying to escape the police from entering the other schools. We've had lockdowns in Montgomery County when armed assailants run from the scene of a crime into the community. The object is to keep the students safe. We've always managed to carry on with our regular instruction. We just lock our doors and students cannot leave the classroom without adult supervision. The same procedure is used for extreme weather emergencies as well. We conduct drills and basically the announcement is made that we are in a code blue. The teacher locks the classroom door and posts the attendance in the classroom online for the administration to see. Then the teacher goes right on teaching.

The fact of the matter is these measures became routine all over after Columbine when it became apparent that there were obvious weaknesses in security at many (probably most) public schools.

Posted by: musiclady | January 28, 2011 8:11 PM | Report abuse


Jay, did in fact, mean principal, as in primary. Now, if he had been talking about his guiding beliefs he would have meant principles, as you mistakenly corrected.

Posted by: demathis | January 28, 2011 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the good update, and the spellcheck. I have no power at the house and so my Internet time has been limited. It does I think support the notion that they might not have needed so many lockdowns.

Posted by: jaymathews | January 29, 2011 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you're in the ballpark with some points in this piece. There are some legitimate reasons for doing the lockdowns, though. This issue is not one of whether or not to do them, but how they were done. Thanks for your suggestion on the need to fill the gap by having something written on the subject from a school security perspective.

See my blog post analysis entitled, "Jay Mathews' 'Overdoing School Security' Partially Hits Target'" at


Ken Trump
National School Safety and Security Services

Posted by: kentrump | January 30, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Thoughtful commentary, Jay, and great follow-up by Ken Trump, whose material should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in school safety. You might be interested to know that while many public schools may seem to go overboard on security, many private schools are thoroughly infested with a "it can't happen here" mentality. Certainly the schools there in the DC area seem to generally be on top of things, but you would be surprised how many private school administrators are indifferent or actively adverse to effective emergency planning and management preparedness and "best practices." You ought to check it out, as your voice is widely heard.

Posted by: bnoder | January 30, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Ken. You have taught me a lot about this issue.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 30, 2011 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Jay, for bringing it light from the grandfather and parent perspectives. I think your questions illustrate the legitimate questions parents have about such school security and emergency preparedness issues. Part of the reasons these questions linger is because school officials don't proactively communicate on these issues with parents and their school community prior to an actual incident.

All of the focus on financial cutbacks, test scores, and education reform has unintentionally pushed school security questions like these to the back burner.
Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Jay.

Ken Trump

Posted by: kentrump | January 30, 2011 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Time to view a copy of Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" again. Not because he has answers, but because it is still a fine meditation on security and fear, and how we just ARE different from, say, Canadians.

Ever notice, Jay, that at private and public schools, a reasonable dispersal of students for pickup by their rides / parents would reduce the peak load at the schoolhouse door and speed everyone's end of day, and how almost nobody in cars does it, creeping in queue instead?

That's security.

Posted by: incredulous | January 31, 2011 6:19 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company