Bill Welch was at a meeting Friday morning when people around the room started looking at their hand-held devices and talking about the mass killing in Connecticut. Right then, Welch, who runs a security company that contracts with the Novato Unified School District, received a call from schools Superintendent Shalee Cunningham.
"She called right when everybody was saying, 'Oh my God,'" Welch said. "The superintendent and I talked about it just so everyone's aware."
Welch, a retired 25-year police officer and Novato native, operates North Bay Security Group, which monitors all of the campuses within the district. Two security officers roam from campus to campus every school day, checking in with administrators, patrolling the perimeters and making sure everything appears safe.
Leslie Benjamin, the district's communications director, said NUSD is thankful to have North Bay Security Group's team of retired cops on campuses. Prior to budget cuts that led to personnel reductions, the Novato Police Department used have school resource officers that dealt with truancy, emergency counseling, arrests and security. Today, Welch's group is charged with helping protect 8,000 students plus faculty and staff.
"North Bay Security gives us a layer of protection," Benjamin said. "We felt we had the need to have that presence out there. We are as ready as anybody could be for such a senseless tragedy as this (today)."
Welch said it's crucial that suspicious people near schools should be reported immediately, either to school staff or the police. Every school requires visitors to sign in at the front desk and get some sort of identification — often a sticker that can be placed on clothing — so that kids and staff members can easily identify unfamiliar folks as friendly.
During a security lockdown, kids are instructed to get under their desks as teachers turn out lights and lock doors. They remain in place until an administrator or trusted source such as Welch's teammates or a police officer, tell them it's OK to return to the normal routine or to evacuate to another area. Lockdown drills, which are similar to earthquake drills or fire drills, are held several times a year at each school.
Welch said the administrative team communicates with police and fire officials to constantly review protocol. "It's a great partnership," he said.
Parents rushing to a school site in fear can create additional problems for first-responders. If a school has a security breech, the last thing they want is additional people on location.
"In addition to managing an incident itself, you end up having to managing that, too," police Lt. Oliver Collins said. "We certainly understand the concerns and the immediate need to check the welfare of their child. What we try to do is reassure parents as quickly as possible by disseminating information, whether it's by phone, a social media network or the traditional media. You have to get the message out quickly."
Benjamin said the school district has a digital system that can send out messages to parents in mass quantities. The Connecticut shooting is a reminder that parents should update their contact phone numbers with the Aeries website or check with their school office.
"It's critical that we have current information," she said.