School shootings and cyberbullying: Alhambra police talk student safety

The first class of USC Annenberg and Alhambra Source’s Reporter Corps took a tour of the Alhambra Police Department in 2012. Members of the journalism training program asked the city’s top cops about crime on Main Street and policing technology. This year’s Reporter Corps class revisited the station in February, this time to discuss school safety in Alhambra.

The reporters sat down with Police Chief Mark Yokoyama, Capt. Cliff Mar, Sgt. Jerry Johnson, and School Resource Officer Brandon Cardella to discuss the safety issues impacting Alhambra’s students, including mental health, e-cigarettes, and online bullying.

What is the relationship between the Alhambra Police Department and the Alhambra Unified School District?

Mark Yokoyama: We have Parent University, workshops, and a lot of outreach and partnerships dealing with similar issues that the school district deals with. I haven’t seen that at any of the other departments I’ve worked for.

Are there any potentially unsafe trends or behaviors that parents of high school students in Alhambra should know about?

Brandon Cardella: Social media. Bullying is a big issue and has been for the last year and a half in schools, because it doesn’t stop with the bells at 2:45 p.m. It continues on social media sites. So we’re trying to educate parents as well as staff and students on what is acceptable to post on these websites and what is not acceptable.

What has been the most common reason for you to arrest or detain a student in Alhambra?

BC: When it comes to our district, weapons and battery. Battery against school officials, threatening teachers and staff. I would say less than a dozen instances a year. We have special needs kids too, who act out against a staff member or something like that.

Also, vapor pipes. You have to be 18 to purchase a pipe. We find a lot more high school kids, especially from the Asian demographic, get these vapor pipes. They’re caught with them all the time, whether they’re smoking just the vapor liquid itself or adding different liquids. They think it’s safer and they get their hands on it and what they don’t understand is that it’s still illegal to possess. It’s just like if you had an actual cigarette, because it’s tobacco. It’s a huge issue right now.

Officers walk past the high school library during a 2013 active shooter simulation. | Photo by Albert LuA major issue of national concern is school shootings. Are the school district and police department prepared to respond to a school shooting in Alhambra?

MY: We do training at least once a year. I’ve been here three years, and each summer we have had some type of training that directly relates to what the teachers do on a day-to-day basis, such as an active-shooter training. If someone comes onto campus with a gun, we want the teachers to know what we’re doing, and we need to know that they’re being trained to do something a particular way.

This really wasn’t something that people thought about until recent times, the physical security of school campuses. All the campuses in Alhambra, elementary through high school, are gated. It’s rather difficult for someone to walk in. That gives me an additional level of confidence of safety and security that the school has.

Has the school district or police department implemented any school shooting or crime prevention programs in Alhambra's schools?

MY: One of the big societal issues that we as a country are dealing with is mental health. If you look at the school shootings, what is a common denominator for those who are doing the shooting? There are mental health issues associated with that.

Last year, this police department took into custody over 200 people and committed them in for mental evaluations, and that doesn’t include those that the school district dealt with. That was an all time high. Preventative measures needed are outreach, early intervention, counseling, and that’s all available at the school district through Gateway to Success. I think AUSD is doing an excellent job in providing those services.

Have there been any recent issues with gangs in Alhambra?

Clifford Mar: In the early 80s, there was always tension between Hispanics and Asians. The 80s saw a rise in Asian gang activity in the San Gabriel Valley. Once in a while you would have a shooting because these Asian gang members were able to get weapons pretty easily. The Vietnam War had ended in 1975, and it was five years and it was just fresh. But gang violence peaked in the 90s, and right now really we don’t have any problems. I still know and talk to these gang members who are now my age or older. They’ve grown out of the gang mentalities or activities.

MY: An occasional fight on campus happens, but nothing that you can directly tie back to a specific race of people against another specific culture. Just like every community, there are gang members who live in town; we know that for a fact. Do we have gangs that control Alhambra or pieces of Alhambra?  No. There is no territorial gang that any of us are aware of. 

I also think there’s a segment of the gang population that became much more sophisticated. They’re not wearing tattoos or displaying them openly. They’re not driving a typical gang car that would draw the attention of the police. They’ve gotten away from street robberies and they’re doing white-collar crimes, identity theft, etc.

Do you have any safety tips for parents?

BC: If you have an open relationship with your child, they won’t be afraid to tell you what’s going on in their lives and won’t be afraid to show you what they’re doing online. Monitor what they do. In our world now, social media is what really can damage our kids and their self-esteem.

Jerry Johnson: As the father of a 16-year-old son, I respect his privacy, but I retain the exclusive right to violate it anytime I want. It’s a trust and communication issue. I’ve got to be a father, which means I have got to check up on him even as he’s getting a little older now. As a parent, you’ve got to find that fine line between that and letting them be their own person. It’s about finding a balance.

This interview was edited and condensed. This story is part of a Reporter Corps series on the Local Control Funding Formula and its impact on Alhambra students, teachers, parents, and community. Learn more.

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