Under Constant Threat

School shootings have ticked up since school has returned. With two local shootings in the last few months, first at Westmont then at Oakridge Mall, the need for classroom safety is important as ever

Audrey Nguyen/Bear Witness

America is dealing with a phenomenon almost exclusive to campuses in the United States: school shootings. These tragedies, 34 of which in 2021 have resulted in the death of a student or staff member, have both shaped and changed the landscape permanently for the American educational system.

The problem is creeping closer to Branham.

On Dec. 17, as many students were taking final exams, a viral social media trend emerged in which students posted threats aimed at various schools intending to cause fear and possible panic among the student body.

Although no threats were made directly toward Branham, Principal Cheryl Lawton addressed parents and students, saying that school would resume as usual.

During Thanksgiving break, a shooting broke out at Westmont High School’s parking lot during a football game, just two miles away, forcing fans and athletes to take cover. The game resumed 30 minutes later.

In 2021 alone, there were upwards of 149 incidents of gunfire on school campuses nationally, resulting in 34 deaths and 94 injuries, according to Everytown Research, a nonprofit aimed at stopping gun violence in school.

School threats return from shutdown

Since the return to school in spring 2021, threats of violence towards campuses have become increasingly common. Many schools have had to take various precautions such as shutting down or increasing police presence on campuses nationwide, according to CNN.

In response to these events, the Bear Witness hosted an open forum for students to share their concerns regarding the issue of gun violence on campuses across the nation.

The event drew about two dozen attendees.

“I feel that students as a whole have stopped feeling regarding school shootings,” said senior Nancy Mikha who attended the school shooting forum. “This common feeling of desensitization has become a nationwide theme that many students feel themselves struggling with.”

Branham dealt with its first threat back in late October when vague social media threats were made directly to the school. A shelter-in-place protocol was started, and students could not leave their fourth period class.

During the threat, students and staff were left startled by the event and were unsure of how to proceed to stay safe. Many students felt as though this wouldn’t happen here. Fortunately the threats were found not credible, but left many students startled.

“It concerns me that every time this occurs, it happens, there’s fright, then it dies down,” said freshman Avishawd Yarisaied, who attended the forum and also addressed her concerns during a December district board meeting. “Then it happens again, and it escalates. It is an endless cycle.”

On Dec. 20, a day after the social media threats nationwide, these social media threats became a reality when a shooting took place at Westfield Oakridge Mall, just three miles away from Branham. With 5,000 patrons in the building doing their Christmas shopping, store employees scrambled to shelter in place. One person was reportedly injured.

The Bear Witness broke news that several students had sheltered in place in the mall.

“I never expected something like this to happen to me or anybody,” said sophomore Yareli Correa, who was shopping at the mall when the shooting took place.

On top of fear of COVID-19 exposure, safety issues about school violence have emerged as a top concern among students.

School shootings dropped as schools shut down nationwide, but rates have ticked back up since the start of the 2021-2022 school year, with more than three dozen school shootings since Aug. 24 with 14 people being killed, according to Education Week.

“I was desensitized to hearing about Oxford,” said sophomore Emilie Long, referring to the December shooting in Michigan. “But then I realized how often it happens and how prevalent it is in our lives.”

Close to home

Of the 34 shootings in 2021, 12 have been during or after sporting events.

The Bay Area dealt with a local shooting at Westmont High School on November 26, 2021 during a CCS match between St. Francis High school and Serra High School.

For every 100 Americans, there are 120 civilian owned guns; the United States is the only country where registered guns outnumber its people. In comparison, the second highest rate of gun ownership is 62.1 guns per 100 people, in the Falkland Islands, according to Small Arms Survey. This high percentage of gun ownership filters into the safety of overall life but primarily the feelings students carry on campus.

“I feel students have just stopped caring because it happens so often,” said junior Andy Chen.

According to Pyschcom, students are at an increased rate of developing post traumatic stress disorder just from simple things as doors being slammed or sounds of fireworks, even if they have not firsthand been in a school shooting.

Since the start of the school year, Branham administrators have scheduled drills that address several situations, from earthquake preparedness to active shooter incidents. One concern in particular has been repeated several times since the new buildings went up two years ago: immovable desks in the science buildings that cannot be used as barricades.

Lawton said she’s aware of the problem, and is working with the district to find a good fit for active shooter barricades.

“We’re trying to come up with a solution that is going to be safe for people, and easy, and also effective,” she said.

Assistant Principal Dr. Richard Ruiz, in his first year on the job after leading the district’s ROTC program, is responsible for the Branham’s safety protocols, and said he is actively looking for effective barricade solutions, as well.

Other concerns include the height of windows in the lower-level classrooms.

“I had let them know if we can’t change the window size, can we please get blinds that lock down?” said Ruiz, who had suggested that other cost-effective methods could include tinting the windows.

Ruiz explains that the district has not actually gone through with any of the suggested ideas to ensure the safety in the new buildings, partly due to the fact that changes to school infrastructure must be overseen by the California Division of the State Architecture.

Though drills are planned in advance but are only known to teachers, Lawton encourages students to take the lockdown drills seriously in case of an actual emergency.

“We’re probably better prepared than a lot of schools,” said Lawton. “But there’s always more that we can do.”

Though students continue to live with the threat of school shootings, Branham is working on increased mental health counseling efforts.

Still, for Ruiz, the preferable situation is a safe campus free of fear.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I feel bad that students are in that situation. It’s not fair.”