On Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a semi-automatic rifle and two semi-automatic handguns, he easily broke through the school security system.
Cameras dotted the school’s perimeter and the school even had a “sally port” system, which restricted entry to the building in a holding area until a guest was identified.
But the windows encasing the sally port were not bullet resistant. Lanza shot through the windows and murdered 20 schoolchildren and six adult staffers before taking his own life.
What have Los Angeles’s Jewish institutions learned from Sandy Hook and other mass shooting events?
On Dec. 10 and Dec. 12, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted, “Seconds Count,” a training session for K-12 schools in active shooter response. The program was organized in conjunction with the LAPD and BJE (Builders of Jewish Education). School and synagogue faculty, staff, administrators and security experts attended the training to share security strategies and to learn best practices from LAPD officers.
The Tuesday event was held at Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard office building and drew about 40 people. The Thursday event was held at New Community Jewish High School and drew about 50.
Seated at multiple tables in a workshop-style environment for the Dec. 10 training, local Jewish educators were asked to brainstorm how they would improve their own security if money were no object.
One person suggested constructing a building without windows to the outside. Another would increase the number of armed security guards. Others suggested more mental-health resources and self-defense training.
Two themes, though, ran through the morning training. First, to prevent a massacre on the scale of Sandy Hook, each school must develop and repeatedly drill its own security plan.
Second, central to that security plan must be a communication system among staff, faculty, and students. According to multiple security experts present at the session, schools can quickly use their speaker system, as well as walkie-talkies and text messages to facilitate a lockdown procedure.
“They all do fire drills exceptionally well, and almost none of them do lockdown drills at all,” said Cory Wenter, director of safety and security at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Wenter, a former U.S. Marine who served on President George W. Bush’s security detail at Camp David, believes every Jewish school in Los Angeles is “very vulnerable” to an active shooter, defined as someone attempting to kill people in a confined space, usually with a firearm.
“No one knew Sandy Hook until it was Sandy Hook,” Wenter said. “No one thought about Virginia Tech or Columbine or any of those other things until they became that case study.”
Jason Periard, Federation’s director of community security, said that every school and synagogue must make sure that it’s not the “weakest link” in terms of security.
Periard, who spent 21 years in the Marine Corps and has worked as a criminal investigator for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), said that on Aug. 10, 1999, before Buford Furrow opened fire, wounding five people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, he scouted other Jewish centers to survey security.
After observing the Skirball Cultural Center, American Jewish University (then the University of Judaism), and the Museum of Tolerance, he decided to check out other Jewish facilities.
“They were too hard a target,” Periard said. “[He] saw security guards out front with guns so he kept moving.”
Buford settled on the JCC because it had plenty of people and almost no security. Furrow walked into the JCC’s lobby carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol and fired 70 shots.
At the training session, attendees debated amongst themselves the effectiveness of different types of security. How can school administrators ensure a secure environment that’s also open and conducive to learning?
According to both Periard and Wenter, the balance between security and not making a space feel like a prison is difficult, but possible to navigate.
Do armed guards improve security?
Cathy Riggs, an LAPD officer, thinks so. As does Marvin Goldsmith, the VP of Security at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “Armed guards are a necessary component of security,” Goldsmith said.
One step every institution should take, Periard added, is to train front desk staff to identify suspicious behavior.
“You put somebody on the phone in the front of a school, generally speaking, you teach that person people skills, right? But you don't teach them tripwires, which is behavioral analysis,” Periard said.
“If the bad guy shows up at your facility and he’s doing what’s called the casing or walkthrough, he’s probing you,” continued Periard. “He comes up to your lady at the front office, and she starts asking him a lot of questions, like, ‘Sir why are you here? Why are you asking me all these questions?’ He backs off and goes to the next facility.”