Santa Rosa High gun threat tests police, school district amid rise in deadly school shootings

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Officer Matt Crosbie exchanged high-fives with ecstatic, soon-to-be graduates two weeks ago on Santa Rosa High School’s Nevers Field as they practiced the commencement ceremony planned for later that day.

But the rehearsal — Crosbie’s first since starting his assignment as a school resource officer last fall — was disrupted when his radio signaled an urgent message from the front desk: A student had been seen holding a gun in the school’s music building.

The campus and two neighboring schools were quickly placed on lockdown, prompting the largest-ever police response to a report of a gun at a Santa Rosa school.

“It shows you how quickly things can change,” said Crosbie, a 17-year veteran of the Santa Rosa Police Department. “We no longer wait to respond. We immediately go in and respond to the threat that’s occurring.”

Hours later, officers took the suspect, a 15-year-old student at the school, into custody and discovered the gun was a realistic-looking BB pistol. But in the harrowing moments at the start of the May 31 lockdown, before anyone knew the gun was not real, school district and police officials demonstrated how years of planning, the use of an on-site school resource officer and security upgrades bolstered their ability to respond to threats of violence.

The preparation mimics initiatives on campuses nationwide, where school shootings are becoming more common and failures by police, schools and teachers to protect students can lead to devastating results.

“It reinforces that we need to continue to train the school staff to always be prepared,” Sgt. Jeneane Kucker, who helps oversee the department’s School Resource Officer program, said of the incident. “It’s muscle memory for the brain.”

Students, parents, staff and administrators expressed fear, anxiety and stress during the nearly three-hour lockdown as officers searched for the student with a gun. In an era of mass shootings in the United States, some said they sat in fear of gunshots. Nevertheless, students knew what to do because of training and active shooter drills, officials said.

“It really wasn’t so much about that day, it’s about what we prepared for,” said Superintendent Diann Kitamura, who was at the Ridgway High School graduation ceremony that morning when Santa Rosa High went on lockdown.

Additionally, a new, multifaceted notification system had been installed at all 24 schools in the district over the last 18 months. It includes an LED display with a text warning message in English and Spanish, flashing lights, a message over the public address system and an alarm. It’s also used for daily school announcements.

“Any place you have a clock and an alarm, this goes in. This is a really key communication tool, especially for Spanish speakers and hearing challenged,” Kitamura said.

The notifications are activated through a school phone by punching in a security code, which eliminates the need for staff to be at the front office. During the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, the first gunshots on campus were through the windows of the front office and the principal was among the 26 killed.

“In this case — or any case — the notification system can be activated from any phone on campus,” said Rick Edson, assistant superintendent of business services. The system, which cost $2.4 million, was funded by two voter-approved bonds, Measures I and L, to improve school facilities and technology.

For the Santa Rosa Police Department, the incident highlighted the importance of the school resource officer program, Kucker said, one that has grown in size and broadened in focus since its start more than two decades ago.

A school resource officer was first stationed at a handful of Santa Rosa schools in 1996, primarily focused on drug education and enforcement. But officers’ roles shifted after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, in which police were criticized for their slow entry into the school.

“Since Columbine, departments across the United States have evolved,” Crosbie said. “We no longer wait for a SWAT team to respond and set up a perimeter. We respond directly to where the threat is.”

The department now has five officers assigned to 10 schools in the district. While drug awareness is still a goal, officers also provide students with information about gangs, peer pressure and weapons through in-class talks and one-on-one interactions.

In the process, they build relationships and mentor students. Those connections can prove invaluable, as they did last month when Crosbie received the report of a gun.

“I was familiar with the student, and that familiarity helped me understand who I was looking for and better prepared me,” Crosbie said.

Another role school resource officers have on campus is training staff and teachers on how to react during active shooter situations.

School administrators and the police department gather every other month to talk about safety and the resource officer program, Kucker said.

District officials say they’re evaluating the May 31 response for areas of improvement, including communication errors. Parents received conflicting information in alerts from police and the school district about where they should wait to retrieve students — the Big Lots parking lot or Santa Rosa Junior College’s Emeritus Hall.

Kitamura also said the district would work on providing updated campus maps to authorities.

Police also identified communication as a challenge, saying more resources could be allocated toward sending out Nixle alerts and answering questions from the public on social media, Kucker said.

Other questions that arose included what to do with students who needed to use the restroom during the lockdown, or those with medical needs, Crosbie said.

At the Santa Rosa High campus, the district has not yet installed so-called Columbine locks, which lock classroom doors from the inside. Some teachers had to secure doors from the outside during the lockdown. Edson said the new locks are slated to be installed sometime during the 2019-2020 school year.

Edson spent the duration of the lockdown at the police command center at a Chevron gas station on Mendocino Avenue, where he served as a liaison between police and the school district.

“It’s very unfortunate that we had to do this. At the same time it was very controlled and law enforcement handled it incredibly well,” he said. “We all depend on each other.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets. Staff Writer Susan Minichiello can be reached at 707-521-5216 or On Twitter @susanmini.

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