If the San Marino Unified School District was being graded on its system-wide lockdown last Tuesday, it may very well have received an “A”.
Superintendent Alex Cherniss praised how effectively his administrators and teachers reacted to shuffling students into their buildings and keeping order during the precautionary lockdown, which was enacted during a multijurisdictional police search for a teenager who was suspected of being in possession of guns.
Cherniss said he “couldn’t be more proud” of how staff members conducted themselves.
“We communicated with the parents and staff during a single event more than we ever had before,” Cherniss said in a telephone interview on Friday, Jan. 27. “Communication is key so everyone on the outside knows everyone on the inside is safe.”
The search for the 15-year-old boy, a San Marino High School student, began Tuesday morning when his family became concerned for his whereabouts. Although he was reported to have last been seen at 9 a.m. on Tuesday and was classified as a “possible threat to life or property,” the search initially was characterized as a search for a “critically missing” teenager, possibly a runaway.
The teen was later found at the Dave & Busters at Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia shortly after 2 p.m. on Tuesday, and was carrying a gun. Additional information indicated that the boy’s family had contacted police when they realized at least one firearm was missing from his father’s home.
Cherniss emphasized that the SMUSD lockdown, which involved all four of the schools, was purely a precautionary measure. SMHS was locked down at around 10 a.m. that day and the other three schools followed shortly, thereafter. Carver Elementary School was in the middle of recess when the order came, Cherniss added, making the corralling of kids especially impressive, he said.
While locked down, the four schools were guarded by officers with the San Marino Police Department as they and deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department searched the high school. The schools fed everyone with thousands of lunches and administrators regularly sent emails and push notifications to update parents.
“There are some tweaks we’re going to look at to make communication better,” Cherniss said.
In response to the volume of calls made to the SMUSD central office, Cherniss said he hopes to have a prerecorded message in the future that will go out to all parents’ phone numbers, on top of the emailed newsletters and mobile app notifications that are already used.
“We’re going to have opportunities for teachers to meet with their principals and give input as well,” Cherniss added.
San Marino Police Chief John Incontro likewise patted his officers and SMUSD on the back for their part in making sure Tuesday happened as safely and orderly as possible. Incontro said his officers and school officials had practiced lockdown procedures in the past, but acknowledged the difficulty of emulating a “real world” feel.
“Because of that, it helped out in this situation,” he said, referring to the practices. “We had a couple of lessons learned.”
Specifically, Incontro said he felt his department’s setup time at the schools could have been quicker, although he acknowledged that having to coordinate with multiple agencies was something new. South Pasadena and Arcadia police officers also participated in the search.
“It was good teamwork for everyone in the region,” Incontro said.
Given the unfamiliarity with the scenario, Incontro added that officers at times had trouble sifting through the waves of information provided by students as to the boy’s whereabouts or habits, which resulted in at least one false lead.
“That causes problems,” he said. “It was new for our folks to handle that amount of information.”
The lockdown was lifted shortly after 2 p.m. that day, around a half hour before the boy was apprehended at the mall. Since then, there has been an outpouring of thanks from the community, namely in the form of sweets and baked goods.
“The comments and the support have been very nice,” Incontro said. “We’re happy we were able to provide a service. I can’t emphasize how well we worked with the school district.”
Cherniss said the student has since been unenrolled from SMUSD.
The Outlook is not identifying the student because he is under age and has not been criminally charged as an adult.