Officials Look at Improving Procedure After Lockdown

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is still considering its options regarding a San Marino High School student who allegedly sent a message that appeared to threaten a peer, prompting a precautionary campus lockdown early last week. A local police official believes the text was not to be taken seriously.
Meanwhile, school officials and first responders are using the situation to evaluate and adapt their procedures in case of future emergencies. In a phone interview, Loren Kleinrock, interim superintendent for the San Marino Unified School District, said unprompted that he could have done a better job of communicating the situation to parents in a timely fashion that morning.
“We just needed to have a better process, which we now have and will continue to improve on,” Kleinrock said. “It turned out to be a valuable drill, if you will. With any plan — I don’t care whether it’s school or the military — once stuff starts happening, you have to make it work as things are unfolding. I should have been able to send out an authorized message sooner.”
SMUSD sent out its first alert on the high school’s lockdown shortly before 8 a.m. Monday, March 4, but by that point the lockdown had been in effect for more than an hour. A second bulletin from the school district — around 45 minutes after the first — dispelled apparent rumors that there was an active-shooter situation on campus.
The lockdown was predicated on an apparent threat of violence by one SMHS student against another, communicated through a text message sent to a group, authorities said. In a phone interview, Police Chief John Incontro said this week there was “no intent to do any harm to anybody.”
“These kids were messing around with each other and things got out of hand,” he added.
That said, however, one of the recipients was concerned enough about the seeming veracity of the threat that he contacted the FBI, after which agents in Washington sent information to the FBI field office in West Covina. Agents there contacted SMPD around 5:30 a.m. that Monday.
SMHS was locked down after a conference involving Incontro and numerous school district officials, but by that point several students already were on campus, either for zero period or for athletic workouts. Those students and staff members who were present entered lockdown procedure, and other students were turned away as their parents brought them to school.
Incontro acknowledged that combating rumors played an unfortunate role in the morning’s activities.
“It’s just human nature to fill in the blanks,” he said. “When you’re looking for answers, if you hear it from someone who’s a trusted source, you’re going to repeat it. That’s just the reality. That’s why we try to get in front of it.”
Kleinrock said the coordination of the lockdown with the consideration of those already on campus most likely precluded the district from sending out more timely alerts, and the information gap was “aggravated” by the rumor mill.
“That distracted from what we were trying to focus on, but the bottom line is that I probably should have sent out the campus Blackboard message sooner that we were locking down campus, nobody was hurt and we’ll update when we have more info,” Kleinrock said.
Around 9 a.m., police arrested the student alleged to have sent the message and school officials reopened SMHS in time for its 11:14 a.m. fourth period. At the time, the suspect was arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats and destruction of evidence.
“I don’t believe there was [intent to do harm],” Incontro reiterated, “but it doesn’t change the nature of [an alleged] violation. What resulted from this is, you have the FBI involved; you have six police agencies in on this; you have the school district upside down. Just in my house, my kids stayed home until it was safe and my wife stayed home from work with them.”
Both officials agreed that the incident serves as a cautionary tale for those who rely on the relative anonymity of keyboards and the online world to communicate things they might not do in person.
“People think when you’re sitting in front of your device or computer that you can say anything you want, and there’s no accountability,” Incontro said. “Once you type it and send it, it’s out there and you can’t pull it back. Sometimes people think they can’t be accountable for it. In some places, we’ve lost a little bit of kindness and a little bit of being careful and thinking first.”
“It was a hard lesson for those involved in this to learn,” Kleinrock said. “If someone had just given [the Police Department] the information the night that some people knew it and said, ‘This is supposed to be a joke and there was no shooter,’ the Police Department would have handled it and we might not have had to close school in the morning.”
Incontro lauded the relationships among all of the officials involved, a situation he said was indicative of the small-town atmosphere of San Marino.
“Everyone knows each other and we were able to talk and get things done,” he said. “Some places, it’s not as good. What really helped is having the major decision makers all there. All three of the major decision makers” — SMHS Principal Issaic Gates, Assistant Superintendent Linda de la Torre and school board President Lisa Link — “were there, and you always want to have those people there. When things are falling apart, that’s the wrong time to exchange business cards. You have to have that relationship ahead of time.”
“Most communities don’t have the luxury of a police chief who’s just down the street who happened to be the commander of a SWAT team at one point,” Kleinrock added. “We certainly appreciated the help and the professionalism of the Police Department, and we want to ensure the public and the parents that we have used the events to make our procedures stronger and moving forward we will be better for it.”

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