Del Mar School board considers resolution on school violence

During the Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) board meeting on March 28, Del Mar Hills Academy parent Marisa Criqui grew emotional when talking about the importance of safety in schools.

“My 10-year-old son and I have a ritual. We hug, we kiss each other on the cheek and, lastly, we sniff each other’s hair every time we say goodbye,” Criqui said of the ritual that has carried extra weight for her since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. “We know that even in nice suburbs, children get murdered in schools by people who own assault weapons…there is currently nothing that would make Carmel Valley and Del Mar immune from this same type of nightmare.”

Criqui and three other parents came before the school board to request they pass a resolution on school violence, similar to steps taken by San Diego Unified, Poway Unified and San Dieguito Union High School District boards. City Councils in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas have also recently passed resolutions for improved gun control.

Parents were asking the board to take action with a resolution that demands state and federal lawmakers pass stricter gun legislation, a ban on private ownership of assault weapons, and more thorough background checks.

“I can no longer convince myself that it can never happen here. So I send my son to school with a protective hug, a promise that I love him and a sniff of his hair in case I don’t see him alive again,” Criqui said tearfully. “We need more assurances that our nice town will not be next.”

All four of the school board members present at the meeting (Doug Rafner was absent) said they would be comfortable passing a resolution and directed staff to move forward with a draft.

“Safety is our number one priority,” said DMUSD President Kristin Gibson. “While other districts have moved quickly (with a resolution), I do want for us to be thoughtful and make a resolution that matches our community and the things that we value and prioritize.”

Gibson noted that safety has been addressed at all district campuses. All schools are secured by perimeter fencing with single point entries, every visitor to a DMUSD school is checked in and scanned against a national database, staff and students participate in lock-down drills and the district’s leadership team has been trained on options-based response that is specific to active shooting events.

“Over the eight years that I’ve been on the board, the district has put excellent school safety procedures in place but we are always compelled to do even more,” Gibson said. “We always know that there’s more work to do.”

Del Mar Hills parent Sonya Norman said she appreciates and values the security measures the district has in place but she would like to see them take a further step with a resolution.

“Nationally we’re in a heartbreaking quagmire right now. Issues that are about basic safety and common sense are embroiled and paralyzed by politics. We’re being sidetracked by issues… Mental health is extremely important but it’s the cause of very little violence,” said Norman who is an expert on violence for the National Center for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. “Making it a mental health issue unfairly stigmatizes people with mental health problems. The problem is guns and the availability of semi-automatic weapons.”

Gibson and the board discussed the different forms their resolution could take. San Diego Unified’s resolution that passed on Feb. 27 took a very strong stance calling for the ban of assault weapons. The California School Boards Association has draft language for a resolution that is a little more broad, urging the state to “invest in, promote and support comprehensive, coordinated and collaborative strategies” to ensure that schools are safe and free from violence. It also targets other safety concerns such as drug use, bullying, harassment and discrimination.

While in favor of a resolution, DMUSD Trustee Scott Wooden questioned the impact it could truly have, noting that almost everything in the San Diego Unified resolution is already California law; the laws just need to be enforced. He said he isn’t sure the board should get too political or exclude mental health as an issue in its resolution, “I want us to be thoughtful about how it’s put together,” Wooden said.

Gibson agreed and said she likes the approach of Sandy Hook Promise, which chooses to stay out of second amendment issues and instead focuses on how schools identify and assess threats and how students can create connections to their school and community, ensuring kids do not feel marginalized, isolated or rejected.

At the meeting, the board discussed how the district is addressing social and emotional wellness through a new district-wide program called Second Step.

Alison Fieberg, assistant principal at Sage Canyon Elementary School, said Second Step teaches students skills for learning, empathy and emotion management. They learn to understand and identify feelings, respect differences and show empathy, care and compassion. Students also learn methods to calm down strong feelings such as deep breathing and self-talk.

“This program teaches them how to advocate, how to be assertive and how to be better communicators so that they can positively impact their community and the world,” Fieberg said. “We’ve had a lot of great feedback, not just from parents but from teachers about the program, the necessity for it and the fact that they feel they have something tangible that they can use in the classroom and at home.”

Kristen Panebianco, a Torrey Hills School parent and member of San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention, said she was very excited about the changes the district is implementing on wellness but urged the board to pass a strong resolution.

“I know you prefer to stay out of politics but to combat the complex issue of student safety, you need to tackle it on many fronts. It is incredibly important that you act,” said Panebianco said. “By doing nothing, you are making a political statement because there’s so much support here in the community.”

“I’m sick of seeing children killed in senseless, preventable mass shootings, dying in school while our elected officials do nothing to prevent it,” said Del Mar Hills parent Jeannie Thomas. “It’s not about politics. It’s simply the lives of our children.”

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