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Are Claremont kids scared to return to school?

by Melina Tisopulos

It’s normal to feel nervous about the first day of school. Elementary schoolers wonder if they’ll like their new teacher, and high school students worry they can’t balance six advanced classes.

But with shootings becoming more commonplace, a new, more chilling question arises: do students feel safe?

The four Claremont Unified School District students we spoke to for this story shared varying degrees of discomfort when asked about attending school amidst the backdrop of an epidemic of gun violence.

Abby and Chloe Leeper are rising sixth graders at Chaparral Elementary School. At 11 years young, the twins are already advocates against gun violence, and have taken part in several protests. But their activism hasn’t prevented them from feeling protected at school.

“At our school, I feel really safe because we practice what to do in a situation, so if anything were to happen, we would be prepared. We have pretty good security as well.” said Abby.

(L-R) Twins Abby and Chloe Leeper, now both rising sixth graders at Chaparral Elementary School, hold up signs at the 2018 March for Our Lives rally in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo/courtesy Kara Leeper.

Madden Thompson is an incoming seventh grader at El Roble Intermediate School. Though he is transitioning to a larger campus, he tooremains comfortable with attending school.

“I feel safe because in the whole history of Claremont, there has never been a recorded shooting at any of those schools, so I don’t feel like there would be a shooting,” Madden said.

While it’s true none of CUSD’s 10 campuses has yet experienced a school shooting, there were two serious scares over the previous school year.

In March, a message was found in the baseball dugout at CHS that reportedly read, “We are going to shoot the school up on Monday. Good luck surviving.” On May 27 — just days after the horrific Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas left 21 dead — a then 15-year-old Claremont High School sophomore boy is alleged to have created an Instagram account named “Official Claremont KKK,” and to have posted racist comments that suggested a school shooting was imminent. Ultimately, the dugout threat was deemed not credible and the alleged perpetrator of the Instagram post was arrested on two felony charges of making criminal threats and making criminal threats with the use of force.

Instances like these have left some students unsettled.

“I don’t think I can answer whether I feel comfortable [going to school] with a yes or no,” said Noor Abdallah, a rising senior at CHS. “Most of the time I feel safe enough to go but after something happens, like when there’s a threat that the school informs us about, then it turns into a no.”

Part of making students feel safe is preparing them for the worst. Lockdown drills designed to train students and school staff for a variety of safety-threatening situations — including an active shooter incident — take place regularly.

But some of the students we talked to question the drills’ effectiveness. Abby and Chloe Leeper have found these drills to be very helpful, and adequately address what to do if an active shooter was on school grounds. This differs from Noor, who feels the drills do not offer much beyond a distraction from class. Madden’s experience falls between the two.

“Sometimes the lockdown drills will be [helpful], but sometimes they won’t be because everyone will be yelling and talking and it’s very chaotic,” Madden said.

Another challenge for educators is how to approach discussing gun violence in the classroom. The Leeper twins and Madden found their teachers tend to avoid the topic altogether. This is ideal for Madden, who believes talking about school shootings makes his classmates more fearful of them occurring. In contrast, Chloe believes it is important to have these difficult conversations in class.

“I feel like I would like it if we talked about it more because it’s good to know,” she said. “If it ever were to happen, people who haven’t heard about it would not really know as much about what to do.”

Noor said none of her teachers have shied away from addressing tragedies, but most do not delve into the problem of gun violence itself.

“I don’t think there was a single teacher who didn’t acknowledge that it happened,” Noor said about the Robb elementary shooting. “Every teacher started off class by saying, ‘This happened. We’re going to talk about this for a few minutes.’ But after a few minutes we just get on with class. We talk about it, but I don’t think we ever talk about it seriously, to the extent of what changes are we going to do to make it safe.”

Noor has a few of these changes in mind.

“Claremont High School is a very open campus. Anyone can just walk on and off,” she said. “There should be some structural changes or security measures made, that don’t necessarily equate to something as major as a police officer [on campus], but a way to keep track of who’s coming in and going out. A more secure campus, essentially.”

Noor would also like lockdown drills to be more informative, and better prepare students for an active shooter encounter. And though Chloe and Abby feel safe at school, they also believe more clear instruction would be helpful.

“We had a [substitute teacher] who told us to do one thing, and a teacher who told us to do another,” Abby said. “I would say to make it more clear so people know what to do if it actually does happen instead of being confused. It would be good to communicate a little bit more,” Chloe added.

However, they wish that the issue itself would be resolved, rather than having to worry over preparing for a school shooting.

“I just feel like there needs to be something done about it, more than what is. With how bad it is, it’s not okay to not do something,” Chloe said.

Melina Tisopulos is a rising senior at Claremont High School and is the COURIER’s summer intern.

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