It was one day after Parkland, Fla. lost 15 high school students in a mass shooting when a Delta Police school liaison officer got a phone call saying a student at Sands Secondary had a gun.
DPD Sgt. Cathy Geddes was one of the police officers that went over to the school to deal with the situation. Sands was put on a “code yellow” — technically a lock out, as the Delta School District often emphasizes, where class goes on as normal but no one can enter or exit the building— and Geddes and a fellow officer waited while the student was brought out of class.
They took him aside and found an airsoft gun (a CO2-powered replica firearm that shoots round plastic pellets) tucked into his waistband. He said he had felt threatened by another student and had brought the gun as a deterrent.
Police arrested the student and the code yellow was lifted. In the meantime, parents had heard about the incident over social media and started arriving at the school, looking to see if their children were okay.
“It was very sensitive, and that’s probably why we had so many parents arriving at the school,” Geddes said.
But “honestly, if there was a real shooting at the school, there would be [police] members coming up from the south end. Everyone would be going to that school,” she continued. “But it got determined very quickly at the Sands one that that was a CO2 [gun], it wasn’t a real firearm.”
The incident brings together a number of questions about safety in Delta’s schools: Are the schools safe from threats like shootings? And, most importantly, do students feel safe?
The question is a broad one — encompassing everything from peer-dynamics to seismic safety — but does provide hints into how students are feeling in their classrooms.
In general, Grade 10 students in Delta are the least likely to feel safe, with only 73 per cent of student feeling safe at school most or all the time in 2015/2016. Students in Grades 3 and 4 are the mostly likely to feel comfortable in their class, with 84 per cent of students feeling safe most or all the time, according to the provincial student satisfaction survey.
This can vary — sometimes significantly — between schools. Elementary schools across Delta have some classes where 100 per cent of students say they feel safe most or all the time, while others have only 50 per cent feeling safe. This is true of high school grades as well, although those rarely go above 90 per cent.
There is also a divide between North and South Delta when it comes to feeling safe.
Both North and South Delta elementary students feel similarly when it comes to safety, with North Deltans feeling slightly less safe overall. In North and South Delta high schools, however, that difference is more prominent.
Since 2001/2002, no more than 78 per cent of North Delta high school students reported feeling safe at school most or all the time. South Deltans consistently sat in the 80s, with a high of 88 per cent in 2011/2012.
The reasons why students don’t feel safe aren’t discussed in the student satisfaction survey, but they could be the same kinds of reasons Sgt. Cathy Geddes suspects are behind a recent rash of replica guns being brought to North Delta schools.
“Is it because they feel threatened that they’re resorting to CO2 [guns]?” she asked. “They all have awareness about the dial-a-doping, all the shooting that are going on in Surrey.”
(Dial-a-dope is a drug dealing operation where the dealers are contacted by phone, text, or other social media. In the last two years, that type of crime has resulted in a significant number of shootings, including some siblings of Delta students, Geddes said.)
“I don’t think it’s because they want to be cool. I think they do it because they feel they might be threatened. They feel safer,” she continued. “And is that a result of all these shootings? I don’t know either.”
Since the beginning of the school year, police have responded to 168 calls for service at Delta schools. In January and February, three of those calls were because of students either bringing replica guns to school, or posturing with guns on social media.
It’s what Geddes called a “slight spike” in calls over replica guns.
The first occurred on Jan. 26 at Burnsview Secondary. The school was put on a code yellow because of a picture circulating on social media of a student holding what appeared to be a gun with a threatening caption. The second, on Feb. 15, was the Sands incident. The third, on Feb. 26, saw Delview Secondary and Gibson Elementary put on a code yellow following rumours of a man with a gun outside the school.
In each of these cases, the situation was either quickly diffused or found to be non-threatening. The photo of the student holding a gun turned out to be a private joke which leaked to the wider school audience. The Sands student was taken out of class and arrested, and his air gun was taken away. The man with a gun outside Delview turned out to be a student with a pellet gun, who had no intention of using it maliciously, according to Delta School District assistant superintendent Brad Bauman.
“They were just thinking, ‘Oh, it was cool to go out and shoot cans,’” Bauman said. “In that case, there was no sinister purpose for it. They were thinking it was cool, right, not getting the gravity of carrying a replica weapon around.”
But, Bauman and Geddes warn, students need to know the seriousness of the situation.
In the case of the Sands incident, Geddes said, the CO2 gun looked so similar to a real gun that the police firearms expert couldn’t tell it was a replica from a distance.
“If they pull it out in front of us, depending on what the circumstances are, we don’t know,” she said. “To us, this looked like a real firearm … Youth need to understand that they are putting themselves in jeopardy by doing this.”
It’s a fear exacerbated by the reality of school shootings both in the United States and in Canada, and one that has spurred changes in school district policy.
Since the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, Delta and other districts have been aware of the potential for school shootings.
“Events like that, or anything that might happen in the community that could be perceived as unsafe or potentially very unsage, does rattle people,” Bauman said. “We totally understand that. The reassuring part is that we have a fairly great degree of confidence in our procedures.”
Those procedures include the “code yellow” and “code red” lockdowns
Next September, the district is changing its language to conform to a North American standard. Instead of code yellow and code red, it will be “shelter in place,” “hold and secure” and “lock down” — slightly more nuanced than the current system.
However, district procedures don’t just apply when there is a threat already at the school. They start long before. According to Bauman, all potentially worrisome behaviour is looked at using a violence threat risk assessment (VTRA) model.
“No worrisome behaviour or threat-making behaviour goes uninvestigated,” he said. “And the whole goal of violence threat risk assessment is to intervene at the earliest possible time.”
Worrisome behaviour could be anything from a Grade 4 student writing violent stories to a Grade 12 student making threats on social media. When someone hears about that behaviour, a team of educators, police and counsellors come together to look into why it’s happening. It could be the Grade 4 student saw a movie with an older sibling that they weren’t allowed to watch. Or it could be that there are real problems in their home life that manifest as violence at school.
The team talks with the child and the parents, and they connect the student with resources to help them deal with any problems they may be facing — before it becomes a matter of school safety.
“Those instances are so rare and so unlikely, but they do happen,” Bauman said about mass shootings. “So we have to be vigilant, and that is our responsibility, to ensure that we’ve got procedures in place.”
“But there are other things that we do in terms of trying to keep kids feeling safe and connected at school,” he continued. “It’s not being always just prepared for the bad person walking through the doors. It’s also making sure that the kids in the school and in the community feel safe enough to go talk to someone when they see something that makes them feel unsafe.”