Joe Farley sat on a stage Thursday night and made one of the most important commitments of his three-year reign as the superintendent of Capistrano Unified School District.
Responding to a man in the audience who articulated what he wanted to come from the forum of about 90 parents in the theater at Dana Hills High, Farley committed to forming a security task force and a plan to make local schools safer.
"Any question or any concern is fair," Farley said at the outset seated alongside moderator Rich Hayward, president of the Dana Hills' Dolphin Force Foundation.
After being lobbed a question about security in light of the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting last month, it was obvious the audience wanted to seize the opportunity to expand on Farley's comments.
They expressed concern about the lack of good, or adequate, fencing at some schools (there are seven in the district that have no fencing). They expressed dismay that Orange County Sheriff Deputies weren't present on every campus. They expressed a strong desire for preventative action rather than post-incident reaction.
"My sense is that they're representative of the community," Farley said afterward of the audience. "I think it was good input, a good reminder to me of how this issue resonates with parents."
The audience learned it costs $200,000 for the district to hire a police officer, which prompted an idea: Hire private security for cheaper. Some suggested that the police officers at the district's disposal commit to showing up at each school every day in an effort to create a "hardened target" instead of a soft one.
The audience fired off concerns and suggestions, such as giving school receptionists hidden buttons to alert 9-1-1, kind of like bank teller, and fencing schools where it currently doesn't exist, and fix faulty fencing where it does exist.
One person even floated the idea of asking teachers or other school personnel if they were qualified to carry guns and how they felt about doing so on campus and to forget about posting signs that alert people to the "no gun zones." A woman suggested asking parents for $10 per month to pay for additional security, that parents in Newtown would today have gladly paid $100. Another suggested having visitors on campus buzzed in through a locked door.
"You have to keep expectations realistic," said Tim Roberts, who has a 5-year-old who attends John Malcom Elementary and would like the district to create a security roadmap for six months from now, one year from now, five years from now.
"I heard a lot of things about 'We're looking into this, we're talking about that, we hope to have that in place,' " Roberts said. "What I would ask from the school district is a definitive plan ... (of) what we can do before the fall semester starts, with whatever budget we have available, what ways parents can contribute to helping security, so that something more definitive comes out of this than just some good ideas thrown around."
Farley said it was an excellent suggestion.
"I think for the most part we've done as much as we could up to a point. ... these are some of the things we're going to do and when and how they're going to be funded," Farley said. "The bottom line, as a community you need to know we're taking this seriously and we're taking your concerns seriously. ... We'll quickly form a group to wrestle with this and come up with specific recommendations."
Roberts, who has a background in project management, said he appreciated the response.
"You have to create a plan," he said. "You have resources, timelines. This gentleman (in the front row) wants the superintendent to ask the cops to come to the schools. You can do that tomorrow, but it's not going to change anything. You can't fence your schools by tomorrow—maybe that's part of the 1-year plan or 2-year plan.
"These people wanted to vent, to have their ideas out there. Maybe there were 15 ideas today. I want a task force that evaluates 300 ideas. We've got to, as a group, think of this collectively and solve the problem with the resources that we have."
Farley said he envisions a 10- to 15-member task force that encompasses "elementary, middle and high schools, administration, community, law enforcement, individuals with expertise in safety and prevention chaired by a very strong facilitator."
"I would hope we would be able to convene something and do an assessment of current conditions across all of our schools and come up with a really specific timeline to address deficiencies that are identified between now and the opening of school in the fall," Farley said.
Although discussion often focused on what might happen down the road, Farley began the night explaining each school in the district has an emergency response plan updated every year that examines lockdown and evacuation procedures; that school principals and the seven fulltime deputies who work with the district go through emergency simulations, including those that might include a gunman; and four additional deputies on a "Smart Team" respond to any perceived threat.
But Farley conceded "if someone wants to get into a campus they're going to get into a campus; it's a reality of the culture we live in."
"The thing we can do as a school (is) prepare for an emergency," Farley said. "There is a proposal by a San Juan Capistrano City Councilman to give every teacher a firearm (but) we can't have our schools be armed to that ridiculous degree."
He said the district was in the process of purchasing a device for each of its approximate 8,000 doors so they can be locked from the inside, and will revisit the badges and security clearances for being on campus.
Although scheduled for an hour, the discussion lasted about 84 minutes. In addition to school security, Farley explained "Common Core" to the parents (it's the development of critical and analytic thinking that probably won't be fully rolled out until 2016), that aging facilities have taken a beating in the budget, that the prediction for the school budget next year is that it will not be as bad as this year.
"We've cut over $100 million from the budget ... as a system we're limping along," Farley said. "This is the worst it's been.