Amid two separate recent shelter-in-place orders because of potential threats and aging school fencing, parents of students at Las Palmas Elementary School have voiced concerns regarding student safety and are calling for more stringent measures at the campus.
After an initial shelter-in-place order was declared at the school in April for a non-imminent threat made near the campus during a preschool open house, a separate shelter-in-place order was issued in May because of a phone threat that was later deemed to be not credible.
Additionally, parents had concerns about the security of the school fence because of previous holes in it. Capistrano Unified School District staff have patched up holes in the fence following the outcry, though some parents are calling for the overall fence to be replaced.
However, concerns remain with the fencing since it is reportedly decades old. Parent Dijana Jones said CUSD needs to do more.
“The district says it has addressed the issues with fencing. However, until I see a plan approved for action to install new fencing, I do not consider the issue resolved,” Jones said. “It is the responsibility of Capo Unified School District to make security at each school campus a top priority. It is their duty to prevent harm and take actionable steps to make Las Palmas more secure.”
Jones has three children who attend Las Palmas Elementary and wants to be confident they are safe when she drops them off at school.
“The multiple recent shelter-in-place situations were incredibly scary because very little information was shared with parents,” Jones said. “The OC Sheriff’s Department needs to be more communicative and transparent during a shelter-in-place. Imagine standing outside your child’s school during a shelter-in-place (situation) and being told nothing.”
Angela Ferendo-Watts, another parent of a Las Palmas Elementary student, also said the fencing needs to be replaced, because people can currently jump over it.
Ferendo-Watts started an online petition calling for the fence to be updated.
In a message emailed to parents after the April incident, Las Palmas Elementary Principal Maria Cristina Barrosa provided information on the school’s safety procedures.
“Since 2019, the most recent Shelter in Place in April is only the second time we have had to implement a shelter-in-place,” Barrosa said. “The last Shelter-in-Place we called during the school day was back in 2019, and it was due to a coyote roaming the campus and was not due to the presence or threat of an unwanted individual.”
Barrosa further said new lighting has been installed around campus and that new cameras would be put in around every entry point, also explaining the general details of what shelter-in-place means.
“A shelter-in-place is used in situations where there is a threat near the school but not imminent. A lockdown is a more aggressive response when the threat is determined as imminent,” Barrosa said.
“In a shelter-in-place, all individuals are asked to remain in a locked classroom, but lessons or activities can continue, Barrosa continued. “In a lockdown, students and staff are asked to remain in a locked classroom, turn off the lights and find a safe place within the classroom.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department posted information about the May shelter-in-place on social media as it happened, including an update that the threat was not found to be credible.
CUSD spokesperson Ryan Burris said the district and principal continue to work with the school and principal to strengthen safety measures and expects to be able to share more in the near future about upcoming projects that will address safety, as it works to finalize next year’s fiscal budget.
The district is also ensuring it communicates information to parents about threats as much as it can as OCSD investigates them, Burris said.
Las Palmas Elementary’s handling of the recent shelter-in-place incidents was “great,” Burris said. School and other officials proactively handled the situation, and the district always learns afterward things it can work on for the future, he said.
Parent Jim Buri said the rise in school shootings factor into parental concerns with student safety.
“You feel helpless when you drop your kids off at school,” Buri said.
While the school administration has done everything it can, parents are now getting involved to assist, Buri said.
Corinne Perez, another parent of Las Palmas students, said parents have formed a watchdog program in which dads volunteer to spend time on campus to provide an extra set of eyes and do perimeter walks around the school.
Adequate fencing can at least slow down potential intruders, Buri said.
Buri said he would also like to see more communication with parents from CUSD and enhanced safety training for staff on campus.
Barrosa’s email to parents outlined current training procedures.
“Each year, all staff participate in school safety training at the beginning of the school year. During the school year, we practice different responses to different types of emergencies. We practice fire, earthquake, shelter-in-place, and lockdown drills,” Barrosa said. “We practice these safety drills monthly and update our school safety plan annually.”
Ferendo-Watts said parents felt they were heard after a meeting on May 12 with Barrosa and San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan, CUSD Executive Director of Safety and Student Services Mike Beekman, and Sgt. Taylor Gish
“During this meeting, they attentively listened to my concerns—which is signed by over 500-plus members in our community in the petition I started—and have supported us in scheduling a second walk-through scheduled for May 31,” Ferendo-Watts said. “This walk-through will include Andy Hall, San Clemente’s City Manager.”