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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Emergency communication and procedures tested during campus lockdown

Additional reporting by Jessica Boyer.

Pierce College was evacuated and closed Friday as a precaution after a suicide note was found written by someone who was in the Los Angeles Community College District registry.

The suicide note, discovered by the suspect’s mother, lead police and sheriff officers to believe he was either at LA Valley College or Pierce College.

The suspect never made it to the Pierce campus but, with the potential threat, authorities wanted to take every precaution to avoid a dangerous situation, according to Marco De La Garza, dean of Student Services and of Admissions and Records.

While the suspect did apply to Pierce he never went any further in the enrollment process, De La Garza said.

“He submitted an application in fall 2012 but did not enroll in any classes,” De La Garza said.

The suspect was apprehended by police officers at Canoga Bowl, a bowling alley near Pierce, and it was confirmed that he was not armed.

A mass email and text message went out informing recipients about the situation.

Pierce receives its warnings through a system called Blackboard Connect which notifies through email and text. Certain ready messages are pre-written for certain situations, said De La Garza.

“We go in and set up templates and do the email blast and we usually do it in advance. Like if we know we’re going to have graduation and we want people to know, I can schedule it for the future and it will automatically be set up,” De La Garza said. “We upload all active students to the system.”

All active students should receive the messages but the system defaults to information given during a student’s application process. A cell phone number is required to receive the text messages.

“The challenge with text is that if you put your home number instead of your cell number as the information when you applied that’s where it’s going to,” De La Garza said. “Right now our system only has one phone number field so when the new SIS system comes on board we’ll have the flexibility to have additional numbers.”

The new system will be district wide and will be similar to the one used at CSUN, De La Garza said.

The library was one of the locations on the Pierce College campus to be searched by Los Angeles Police Department officers on Friday after reports of a possible gunman on campus.

“I know they [LAPD] came through with their guns drawn and were looking for someone in particular. They had his name and who they were looking for and all of our staff and students here had to stay in place with their hands on their head,” said Paula Paggi, associate professor of library science at Pierce.

Paggi was in her office when the LAPD officers entered the library at 10:45 a.m. and was not notified until they officers had already begun their search. Neither the staff of the library, the students, nor Paggi were notified of the situation before the officers came in, said Paggi.

“I inquired what was happening and then I called the Sheriff’s Department and said ‘Okay, LAPD is here, what’s happening,’ and they informed me that there was a suicidal student and they weren’t sure if it was here or at West,” said Paggi. “I said ‘Well, they came with their guns drawn’ but I guess you have to do that. If there is not active shooting going on, it kind of amazes me.”

During the week, more than 3,500 students come to the library Monday through Thursday and between 1,000 and 1,200 students come to the library on Friday.

“You can recognize your students, you know,” said Paggi. “They’ve been coming here, there’s a new one every once in a while but it’s like a classroom, except we have a couple thousand of them.”

Paggi and her library staff have been through active shooter training in the old library and new library with the school’s Deputy Sheriff Al Guerrero, Paggi said.

“We had no clue what was going on, the officers just burst in, told everyone to put their hands up and had their pistols drawn,” said a source who wishes to remain anonymous. “People were still walking up the stairs to the library while it was being searched. I didn’t recognize the sheriffs. They just barged in and did not identify themselves.”

The library was evacuated at 11:45 a.m. when the college’s Sheriff deputies escorted the students and library staff out.

“It was still very unnerving that we weren’t initially called,” said Paggi. “Notification would have been nice”

Paggi has scheduled a meeting with Guerrero this week to discuss communication techniques for future situations.

“We need to talk about how things were handled, pros and cons, and he’s very good about that. He’s very proactive,” said Paggi.

None of the library staff would comment at this time. Paggi said they “just want to get on with things.”

“We were upset,’ said Paggi. “It was not perfect but I understand that it’s communication that needs to be developed and it will come from this experience.”

Carole Jenkala is the Enrollment Coordinator for the Child Development Center (CDC) and was on campus at the time of the evacuation.

Jenkala estimates that around 94 children were on campus and about 10-15 parents were acting as chaperones for the on campus field trips. Half of the children were visiting the farm center and the rest were at the soccer field.

“I don’t know anything about an email blast. We were in communication with the sheriff. We were as informed as everyone else. What happened here was that our children were on a field trip on campus so we, with the sheriffs, assessed the best course of action.”

Some children were brought to the north gym and some were taken to the CDC.

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