COC lockdown gets real for Signal reporter

Deputies enter the Santa Clarita Community College District board room on the campus of College of the Canyons in Valencia during a gun call at the school. Brennon Dixson/The Signal

Editor’s note: When reports of a person with a rifle prompted a lockdown of the College of the Canyons campus on Wednesday, Signal Staff Writer Brennon Dixson, who was covering a board of trustees meeting, was among those caught up in the lockdown. The following is his first-person account of the experience.

As a student who grew up in the 2000s, I can’t say I’m new to the whole school lockdown routine.

I remember participating in classroom barricade drills from elementary school all the way through high school. In fact, I and one of my best friends still have a laugh about one drill in high school English that — according to the sheriff — was one of the worst barricades he had seen.

My teacher at the time thought the best course of action was to move a mobile television stand in front of our second-story classroom door alongside a slender coat rack, which meant the only thing standing between me — the first student you see when you enter the class — and the imaginary gunman was a stand that would’ve allowed the shooter to stabilize his gun as he sprayed the class with the bullets, according to the sheriff who was overseeing our school drill.

I remember running at recess to tell my friends the story of an imaginary gunman using our TV stand to prevent the recoil of his gun, and how I thought I was better off jumping out of the second-story window if the situation were to actually occur. The story was so genuinely funny that my friends were shooting milk out of their noses as they teared up from laughter.

I went to high school at a performing arts school in San Jose, and while we had lockdowns here and there from nearby robberies, it never felt like something as dramatic as a school shooting would occur on campus, so it was easy to joke about the drill.

But that’s what everybody says until it happens.

Not my usual routine
Fast forward a solid decade — wow, has it really been that long — from my freshman year of high school to Wednesday’s College of the Canyons board meeting at Hasley Hall.

I started the day thinking I would have my usual routine of multiple board meetings, and had heard the COC meeting was going to be eventful — because of teachers demanding fair contracts — but I had no idea just how eventful it’d be and that I’d end the night taking pictures of sheriff’s deputies searching campus for a woman with a rifle.

Upon entering the packed Hasley Hall meeting room, I made my way to an area that would allow me to take pictures of the teachers’ “Fair Contract Now!” signs. I remember resident Stephen Petzold walking in to speak about the college’s bond audits and me beginning to snap pictures of teachers.

Teachers in attendance at the College of the Canyons board of trustees meeting Wednesday donned green signs, which were later used to shelter in place. Brennon Dixson/The Signal

Shortly after, school leaders began standing up and whispering to each other before a large majority of them exited the room.

I thought, “Man, was me taking pictures that big of a deal?” because — as you know — everything has to revolve around what I’m doing.

When Chancellor Dianne Van Hook, board president Michael Berger and others left the room in the middle of Petzold’s speech, I thought that it was peculiar.

Then, Public Information Officer Eric Harnish stepped out of the room, mentioning the name Shirley — the sheriff’s public information officer — so I knew something was surely happening.

When I turned around to see teachers huddled up on the floor together, I thought, “Am I missing something?” and immediately checked my phone for an apocalyptic news alert or texts from my editors, but my lock screen was blank.

‘Gun call at COC’
I quickly sent three texts explaining the weird circumstances to my editors and, less than a minute later, received a reply saying, “Gun call at COC.”

My first action was to text my girlfriend: “Somebody might have a gun on campus.” SEND. “It’s a credible threat.” SEND. “Don’t worry. I love you.”

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about sending my loved ones an emergency text that would serve as my final words.

By now, the rest of the room was hearing what I already knew from one of the school officials, so my next action was to decide whether I should stay or dart for the door.

College officials told us that we were adults and they can’t make us do anything, but the safest thing to do, according to the multiple trainings they’ve undergone, was to shelter in place and remain barricaded in the room.

As some members of the room began packing up their items and heading for the doors, I made the decision to stay, because if anybody was making it out safely, it was going to be Dianne Van Hook and the staff and faculty who knew the campus like the back of their hand.

It’s not like I had very much of a choice, seeing as I struggled to find the room and wouldn’t know which direction to head in search of my car, but I felt this decision could literally be one of life and death.

Teachers in attendance at the College of the Canyons board of trustees meeting Wednesday used anything they could to prepare the room for a shelter in place situation. Brennon Dixson/The Signal

As people continued pouring out of the room, some teachers began using their “Fair Contract Now!” signs to cover the visible glass doors. At the time, I was thinking that we’ll wedge the chairs into the doors, turn off the lights and projectors and have a barricade that’s above and beyond the one my high school English teacher had crafted.

However, outside of the group of spectators huddled on the floor, it appeared as though it was business as usual in the meeting.

School officials attempted to close the blinds and turn off the lights, but it appeared pointless since the projectors, microphones and meeting were still going.

At least 20 minutes into the ordeal, the room got word that most classes were sheltering in place and we learned that the Sheriff’s Department was starting their sweep with Hasley Hall

Follow the training
Edel Alonso then made the very valid point that the board should not ignore the multiple active shooter trainings that almost everybody in the room had participated in. Berger would motion to delay the meeting in recess and the lights in the room were turned off.

The group huddled together away from the covered windows and the screens of phones lit the room as everybody searched for information or texted their families.

Those in attendance at the College of the Canyons board of trustees meeting Wednesday shelter in place. Most kept an eye on their phones, contacting their loved ones or searching for information about how the situation was evolving outside Hasley Hall. Brennon Dixson/The Signal

As I followed the newsroom group chat, which featured up-to-the-minute information from Austin Dave and Jim Holt, one teacher yelled that they wished campus security was armed as another yelled “ditto.”
As the group conversations carried on and the updates poured in, two sheriff’s deputies walked in with rifles of their own and swept the room.

Have you ever seen a cop weilding a rifle? I’m not sure if it’s just me, but it was pretty terrifying.

Deputies enter the Santa Clarita Community College District board room on the campus of College of the Canyons in Valencia during a gun call at the school. Brennon Dixson/The Signal

Right as a message from the college went out explaining that all classes were cancelled, the deputies would instruct the group to keep the lights off until they informed us that the lockdown was lifted. And that’s what we did, despite being pretty hungry and in need of a bathroom.

I couldn’t help but look out the door every couple of minutes, just in case the suspect came walking up the quad targeting us, but I saw nothing except the rain pelting the concrete.

Getting the ‘all clear’
At 6:41 p.m. — nearly two hours after I learned from my editors that there was a lockdown situation — we received the “ALL CLEAR” call.

While most of the staff who remained in the room began to pack up, which is what I would’ve liked to have done, the meeting restarted.

The room was told that a woman named Maggie called and explained there had been a misunderstanding, adding the situation was caused by a woman picking up sticks for her child’s art project.

As the board accepted the bond audits that assessed the school’s bond expenditures, I thought back to my high school experience and wondered, “what grade would COC’s lockdown response receive on a similar assessment?”

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About the author

Brennon Dixson

Brennon Dixson

Brennon Dixson covers education for the Signal. He comes to Santa Clarita from Long Beach, where he was previously employed by the Press Telegram in Long Beach and the Daily Breeze in Torrance.