In an era of school shootings, hanging out with the men and women dedicated to keeping schools safe is especially comforting.
Flanked by three members of the Orange County sheriff's School Mobile Assessment Resource Team – SMART – Sgt. Nancy Wilkey tells me firmly, "We can't prevent an incident, but we are truly prepared for anything that happens."
Wilkey is being frank. She's also being modest. Her team – which includes armed deputies in schools – monitors students, investigates threats and prevents plenty of threats from escalating.
Now, in the aftermath of Newtown, the team also is in the process of changing school safety tactics.
After careful examination of school tragedies, including Columbine and Virginia Tech, Wilkey's team is poised to train teachers and children to replace "hide and hope" with "flight and fight."
Classroom flagpoles are no longer just for flags.
• • •
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens describes her department's school shooting strategy as "sophisticated, integrated." It includes such specialty units as SWAT, the Critical Incident Response Team, SMART and deputies in schools known as school resource officers, or SROs.
Think of SROs as the first line of defense. Hutchins explains, "SROs work in partnership with school administrators on ongoing student trends, problems at schools and efforts to provide appropriate services."
The second line of defense is SMART. Hutchins says that SMART gets involved with "incidents related to violence, threats, weapons, unstable behaviors and suicidal actions or tendencies."
Wilkey calls the active presence of deputies in schools one of the most significant deterrents to violence. Over a period of years, she says, students have toned things down because they know that law enforcement in Orange County gets involved when there are problems.
Both SRO and SMART officers talk directly to students – and parents. Counseling is sometimes suggested. And things go no farther – usually.
• • •
I walk into Wilkey's office at the sheriff's substation in Aliso Viejo. It's scattered with guns.
Rifles lean against a wall. One looks like an AK-47. Handguns spill out of a large plastic box. One resembles an Uzi, another a Glock.
Each one has been confiscated on school campuses. But contrary to some rumors I've heard, these aren't real guns. These are Airsoft guns, spring-loaded and limited to shooting plastic pellets.
In the last year, deputies recall confiscating only one real gun. Still, so-called toy guns are prohibited at schools for very good reasons. They look real. And they can get you killed.
During a round-table discussion, Deputy Doug Claypool says that with movement, shadows and distance, it's extremely difficult to determine if someone's carrying a fake or real gun. With his voice trailing off, he says, "If I ever ... I couldn't live with myself."
The deputy's words are a reminder of what law enforcement faces daily: Sorting through the rumor mill, determining what's real and what isn't.
Making things more difficult is that reality is often distorted as it's digitally and instantly shared. Suddenly, a school exercise morphs into texts that someone's carrying a weapon.
• • •
Along with talking to SMART personnel, I've spent time with deputies at several high schools. The impact of ever-changing trends in social media is always an eye-opener.
As Deputy D. Braham puts it: "There are more ways to communicate." Specifically, he's talking about what he calls "character assassination."
Braham explains the proliferation of mobile devices makes the olden days of MySpace seem tame. Now, there's a variety of mobile devices as well as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram photos, texting ...
The deputy reports students use smartphones to "rant and rave. It's all anonymous. No one's accountable."
Investigator Mark Stichter elaborates, saying many students don't understand the consequences of threats: Virtual fights can turn very real.
Sure, most students' texts are mere bravado. But some aren't. The challenge for SMART personnel is separating digital grandstanding from what law enforcement personnel calls a "credible threat."
A typical day includes at least two to three incidents that require SMART to roll. And the students involved are younger than ever.
• • •
How young are children who threaten others? The deputies agree children start as young as second grade.
Claypool reports it's not uncommon for a child in elementary school to say to another child, "I'm gonna get a gun and shoot you."
But Claypool quickly adds such words don't necessarily mean a child intends to carry out the threat. He blames the escalation of empty threats on video war games such as "Call of Duty." And he says many parents remain unaware of the level of violence in such games.
While the SMART deputies agree video games don't turn children into killers, they caution that violent movies, television shows and games do create a culture of easy threats.
Wilkey says parents should monitor children when they're on the computer, using a tablet, or handling a smartphone.
I explain that in my own family we gave up after elementary school from keeping my son away from video games. He just played the games at friends' homes.
The sergeant nods. Then she offers a series of ways parents can track digital usage: Control passwords, monitor history, use key search programs, put computers in public places such as the kitchen.
"If you suspect something's going on," Wilkey advises, "validate your concerns first. Then hold children accountable."
Stichter points out that the parents of the Columbine shooters only had a vague knowledge of the shooters' journals and self-made videos.
Braham, a father, goes so far as to say that children appreciate attention – deep down. "Start monitoring early so they expect it."
• • •
Should the once-unthinkable happen, Wilkey explains that clusters of bodies at Newtown showed that locking classroom doors and hiding isn't enough. Teachers and students need to add fighting to their arsenal.
Why not just arm teachers?
The deputies squint at me quizzically. Then they explain how much training is necessary to ensure a safe and effective armed response.
For students and teachers, fighting means throwing books, laptops, chairs – anything available – when a shooter approaches. The idea isn't as crazy as it sounds. Wilkey says studies show school shooters prefer the path of least resistance.
Wilkey's team isn't alone. At a conference this month in Las Vegas, school officials reported that the average school shooting lasts 12 minutes – not enough time for law enforcement to arrive and secure a situation. Experts agreed hiding quietly in a corner makes students vulnerable. One called the new tactic, "throw and go."
Wilkey asks bluntly, "If you're in a fight for your life, why not fight?"
A good question from an expert.
David Whiting's column appears four days a week, email@example.com