Safe schools initiative to continue work to address county schools’ needs 

click to enlarge Sandy Hook
  • AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
  • Balloons fly outside a doctor's office on the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, in Newtown, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The mass shooting instigated a government initiative to improve school safety.
A government initiative to improve school safety in San Mateo County in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy will move ahead as a permanent interagency collaboration to address local youth safety needs.

On Monday, a team of educators, law enforcement officials, health and social service providers, and legal experts provided an update on school safety measures implemented after the December 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and seven adults were killed. Since last April, three special task forces have revamped emergency responses, mental health support and information sharing in the county, and their work will continue indefinitely as part of a new Coalition for Safe Schools and Communities that will launch this fall.

“The big goal is to create an organizational structure that works with all the connections and doesn’t take any one piece of [the problem] and work on it in a silo,” said Nancy Magee, administrator of board support and community relations at the San Mateo County Office of Education.

There has been a major push toward consistency and coordination across the county’s 23 school districts and more than 20 law enforcement agencies in the past 12 months.

As part of the effort, sheriff’s deputies and the county education office have reviewed all existing protocols for crises, such as active-shooter scenarios. In December, they issued a single set of agency terminology and response guidelines to county officials.

An enhanced emergency plan was also released to school superintendents, newly branded for all kindergarten through 12th-grade students as “The Big 5.” The new plan adds instructions for school response of “secure campus” and “lockdown/barricade” classrooms to the original three commands to “drop, cover and hold on,” “shelter in place” and “evacuate.”

Attorneys for the county have been working to clarify when and how information can be shared between mental health professionals and law enforcement officers during emergency situations without violating privacy rights. They are developing a more easy to use consent form for doctors and patients.

The county has also beefed up mental health support services, expanded family resource centers, and hired additional behavioral health personnel using $9.3 million in funds collected from the 2012 Measure A sales tax.

Two recently launched initiatives — The Parent Project and Youth Mental Health First Aid — aim to train parents and educators respectively in identifying students with mental health challenges and ways to get them help. A 24/7 hotline to assist children and adolescents in need of counseling also launched in January.

A position for a countywide director of safe and supportive schools was created and filled in February by Cary Catching, a former San Jose Unified School District administrator. “A lot of mental health services are happening in schools but it’s by default,” Magee said. “[The director’s] goal is to coordinate and help align the services.”

In the Coalition for Safe Schools and Communities, delegates from over a dozen county agencies will work to build on the accomplishments of this year’s task forces. The team will meet on a quarterly basis to help ensure that school safety procedures are constantly evaluated and updated.

“A task force implies temporary stuff and what we understand now is that we need something that’s sustainable, that we can keep ongoing,” Magee said.

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S. Parker Yesko

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