College of the Canyons discusses lockdown, armed presence on campus

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy prepares to search the College of the Canyons campus in response to reports of a person with a gun spotted on campus Wednesday night. Cory Rubin/The Signal

When reports of a woman pulling a rifle from a bush prompted a lockdown on the College of the Canyons campus in January, students, faculty and school administrators weren’t exactly sure what to make of the situation.

However, in the months since the event, school leaders have taken the time to assess their response and analyze what could be done differently.

This prompted Wednesday’s “Report on Emergency Preparedness and Campus Safety,” which included, among other topics, a discussion about establishing an armed presence on campus, as well as ideas related to emergency preparedness.

The Lockdown

Shortly after the start of a board of trustees meeting on Jan. 16, Chancellor Dianne Van Hook, board President Michael Berger and others hurriedly left the room in the middle of a speech, which seemed peculiar to members of the audience.

Minutes later, college officials would tell the audience that the campus was on lockdown and the safest thing to do, according to the multiple trainings undergone by those in the room, was to shelter in place and remain barricaded.

Some in the audience would choose to leave the room, while others would begin using signs and other materials to cover the glass doors and windows that didn’t have shades. School officials also attempted to close the blinds and turn off the lights, but the projectors, microphones and meeting were still going.

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

Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the college’s faculty association, was at home watching the board meeting via live stream when the lockdown was announced around 5:03 p.m., but her daughter Katie Wynkoop had alerted her to the situation more than 20 minutes before when she came face to face with a sheriff’s deputy and his rifle while at work in the student development office.

“From a mother’s standpoint, I was pretty upset watching that board meeting continue while I’m receiving texts from my daughter talking about how she thinks she’s going to die,” the faculty association president said. “The dismissal of the fear was what’s shocking. I don’t think that’s what they intended. I think they were keeping their cool, but what that exuded was business was more important.”

The January meeting wasn’t delayed until nearly 30 minutes after the original gun call, when Trustee Edel Alonso alerted fellow board members that they were not following the procedures for emergencies.

Alonso spoke about the situation again during Wednesday night’s meeting, stating, “This is a topic that makes my blood boil, so I’m trying to be very careful about how I talk about it.”

Alonso said she was glad to see some changes had been made since the lockdown, “but it seems to me my expectation would be that every single nook and cranny and classroom and office and student center on this campus has been gone through with a fine tooth comb (to) examine what the vulnerabilities are,” the college trustee said.

In January — when the shades wouldn’t go down and the doors were see-through because there were no blinds and nobody turned the lights off — “that never should’ve happened…I feel so silly bringing this up because it feels so obvious to me,” but the college has a responsibility to its students, Alonso said.

This was a sentiment Katie Wynkoop agreed with when she shared her perspective of the lockdown in a February interview.

During her first day on the job working at the campus store, Wynkoop was greeted by a deputy.

“He’s like, ‘Hey guys. How’s it going? Just so you know — there’s been a report of a woman with a rifle on-campus so we’re going into lockdown,’” Wynkoop said, explaining the nonchalant tone of the deputy.

“He was pretty chill about it, but as soon as he said, ‘Gun,’ everybody ran. People didn’t know what to do. They literally just started running through the hall of the Student Center. There was no direction. It was kind of chaotic,” Wynkoop said.

“I was freaking out and kind of went into flight or fight mode,” she added, recalling the guns of sheriff’s deputies in students’ faces less than an arm’s length away and bouncing from office to office with her supervisors trying to find safety.

Wynkoop said she would soon begin texting her mom and friends to inform them about the potential shooter.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies work to clear the College of the Canyons Student Center building in response to reports of a person with a gun spotted on campus Wednesday night. Cory Rubin/The Signal

“The thing is, I told my mom about it way before the text came out, so I was thinking that’s not good,” Wynkoop said. “If there was an actual shooter on the campus at the time, people wouldn’t have known. They could’ve seriously been hurt so thank God it was a lady with branches in her car or whatever. So, the fact it took at least five, 10 minutes for the text to go out, that scared me.”

Wynkoop added, “I think we like to say we’re prepared, because that makes us feel safe, but we don’t know that until we’re put in a situation that tests it,” which is why she believes the false alarm could be a lesson to the school and its students.

The Fallout

Even though the school hosted multiple deliberative dialogues and town hall-style meetings in the past, January’s lockdown prompted renewed debate about just how prepared the campus was to handle an emergency situation.

“I don’t understand why we’re almost 50 years old and we’re excited and proud of our plan now when we should’ve had one 30 years ago,” Alonso said, mentioning other community colleges have “very comprehensive” safety reports that are updated on an annual basis.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that here,” she said, adding the school also should’ve had a campus-wide drill by now — which is something school officials hope to hold by the end of the semester.

Alonso added it would be wise to have a written annual report that features emergency directions and maps of the campus. She said she had concerns in other areas of campus safety as well — specifically those that relate to students with disabilities and the campus’ cameras.

“If there are cameras, are they actually working and recording, or not?” Alonso said. “If they are recording, then who’s taking a look at those videos?”

Along with Alonso’s recommendations, college officials said at the meeting that more than 80 suggestions have been presented in the wake of January’s incident.

Some are simple, as a bucket to use in place of the restroom, while others detail designs to black out windows or include more detailed posters that outline what students should specifically do in an emergency.

Trustee Joan MacGregor noted that some changes have already been made. For example,  the doors and windows of the board meeting room were covered with shades Wednesday.

Officials in attendance added during the meeting that nearly every room on campus outside of equipment closets and bathrooms will have electronic locks installed if they do not already possess one.

“After the Great Stick Incident… we got to talking to the Sheriff’s Department,” said Mike Wilding, the college’s assistant superintendent of student services. He said the college learned a tremendous amount, including which terms to use when communicating with the campus community, how deputies will sweep the campus and other pertinent information that will help the college in the future.

“They won’t adapt to us. We must adapt to them,” Wilding said.

“We know that we can’t be completely ready, but the commitment of the incident command team and the campus is to continue to work towards improvement,” he added, before Deputy Chancellor Barry Gribbons discussed the input he has received in regards to an armed presence on campus.

Gribbons said from all of the dialogues he has been a part of, there was no one solution that the campus overwhelmingly felt was best, but the college did receive a diverse set of viewpoints at the various meetings.

“Some folks had concerns about an armed presence,” because they were thinking about how some members of the campus community, who might not have had positive experiences with law enforcement in the past, might experience having an armed presence and the anxiety that could lead to, Gribbons said. “Other folks felt like they really wanted to have an armed presence to be effective in responding to any threat, so there was a whole bunch of different, wonderful and valid viewpoints that were expressed,” he said.

The one thing that was clear was any armed presence must be well trained to interact with a college campus community to make sure there are no unintended consequences, Gribbons said, adding that one of the leading options would be to contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and have campus resource deputies on both COC campuses.

This would be similar to the tactics the William S. Hart Union High School District employs, Gribbons said. The benefit of this option is the fact that the deputies would be familiar with operating in an educational atmosphere.

The deputy chancellor said the college won’t be able to implement all of the 80 suggestions received, but it will want to bring together a collection of ideas, because any one option would not be sufficient by itself.

Gribbons said a town hall discussion will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday to allow the community the opportunity to speak on these recommendations and offer other input and useful ideas.

Alonso said the college should also send out a survey for those who can’t make it to the meeting.

“This college is behind on some practical things (but) I think that we can catch up,” MacGregor said. “I think a good discussion was held tonight.”

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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.