A stranger walked onto the Taft Elementary campus in Santa Ana last week, supposedly looking for a bathroom.
What happened next has prompted outcries from parents, staff, and some school board members about lax security at Taft and what has been perceived as disregard for its most vulnerable population: more than 80 students, ranging from infants to sixth-graders, who are either deaf or don’t hear well.
The school, with some 440 students, is home to the district’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program, or DHH, which also includes teachers and staff who are deaf.
Educators said they were not informed the rest of the school had evacuated after a man hit a group of young students, walking to school, with his vehicle shortly after attempting to make his way on campus.
Most classes were evacuated to a back field. However, teachers said three DHH preschool classes were left behind.
“As chaos was ensuing outside, I had no way of knowing that my class was in danger,” Alice Kearns, a DHH preschool teacher, told school board members the day after the May 23 incident.
Classrooms are equipped with marquees and warning lights to alert potential danger to those who cannot hear. But the marquees weren’t used. The lights weren’t used. And alarms or special phones available for deaf staff were not utilized, according to numerous teachers.
“There was nothing on our marquees to tell us to get out,” Kearns said. “We have an alarm for lockdown and lockout. It didn’t go off.”
“As a deaf person, there was a huge lack of accessibility and lack of warning to notify us, the staff, who were in the building during that time,” Haya Rios, a DHH aide, told the school board.
“I was in my classroom, partially hidden by the door. Fortunately, another staff member knew where I typically sat and came all the way into the room to tell me to get out. But what if somebody didn’t know where I sat? Who would have known to look for me? I could have been left behind along with many of my deaf colleagues. Safety should be of the utmost importance and procedures should have been explicitly put into place long before this happened,” she said in sign language.
It was a custodian, the preschool educators said, who came to warn them about the incident and told them to evacuate.
Paulette Parkhouse, an instructional assistant who also was by herself in a classroom, said she went outside with other preschool teachers and their students after being notified by the custodian. She said police were arriving to the school as they stood in front of the building with 17 students; they did not initially realize everyone else was gathered at the back of campus.
“We didn’t know what was happening,” Parkhouse said.
She pointed to the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 people dead, including 19 elementary school students.
“It keeps going through my head. He had (incendiary) devices in his car,” she said. “I look at the faces of the deaf preschoolers that I work with, and I think of what could’ve happened to them.”
Ana Velado, an aide who works with deaf and hard of hearing preschoolers, called the custodian a “hero.”
In the aftermath, several teachers, aides, and others roundly criticized school administrators for what they called a lack of leadership and recent history of inequitable access for the deaf and hard of hearing at Taft.
Three days after the incident, Taft Principal Scott Barlow and Assistant Principal Heather Princiotta were reassigned from their posts to other positions within Santa Ana Unified, according to district spokesman Fermin Leal.
“Because these are personnel issues, we can’t provide other information,” Leal said.
Barlow and Princiotta could not be reached for comment.
A long-time former Taft principal, Steven Longacre, returned to campus as interim principal the same day Barlow and Princiotta left Taft. Longacre, who is deaf, was principal at the school for nearly 30 years before his retirement in 2017; Barlow took over then.
What happened on May 23?
School board member Valerie Amezcua — as well as some staff members — said safety concerns have been relayed to the district for at least a year. What happened on May 23, they said, was the culmination of treating the deaf and hard of hearing students and staff as “an after-thought.”
Multiple employees said shortly after 8 a.m., just as students were arriving on campus, a man with a backpack was able to walk onto Taft’s gated, but open, campus. He entered a building that houses most of the students in the DHH Program before he ran into a teacher who stopped him as he was about to walk into a bathroom, Parkhouse, the instructional assistant, said.
A police spokesperson said officers responded to the traffic collision and did not have information on just how far the man was able to make it inside the school before leaving.
Leal, the district spokesman, said the man walked onto campus, but he did not know whether he made it into a school building. In a letter sent to parents shortly after 10 a.m. that day, district officials said a “trespasser entered the school without permission and was soon removed by school staff.”
Velado said the man was not escorted out but walked away alone. She sought to ensure his license plate was recorded, she told school board members.
Several Taft employees told the school board they felt administrators did not help during the incident.
“We didn’t have support,” said Claudia Avilas, an activities supervisor who oversees traffic and parking. “We were hearing things on the radio from the office. They didn’t reply to us.”
“Someone said they couldn’t hear us,” she said in Spanish. “Yes, you could hear us on the radio.” But nobody answered, she said.
The man left in a red sedan, but less than two blocks away, drove unto a sidewalk and struck three Taft Elementary students walking with their grandparents to school. Victoria Avila, who recently turned 7, and her cousins Madeline De La Torre, 9, and Sophia East, 11, were struck by the vehicle.
“In my mind I thought, ‘He’s going to kill all of us,’” the girls’ grandfather, Jesus De La Torre, told the Register this week.
An attorney for the family said the man struck another car before he exited his vehicle while holding a bat in one hand and a large knife in the other. Investigators said he eventually went to a nearby park.
Jason Carlos Guzman, 26, of Valencia, has been charged with several felony counts, including premeditated attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon using a car. As of Friday, he remained in the Orange County Jail.
The three students, meanwhile, are recovering from bruises and broken bones and have not returned to school.
Taft administrators contacted school police at 8:28 a.m., alerting them an intruder had been on campus but was gone, Leal said.
The city’s Police Department received the first 911 call about a traffic incident from a resident at 8:21 a.m., dispatched an officer at 8:27 a.m., and was on scene five minutes later, according to Sgt. Maria Lopez.
School officials did not directly call the police department, she said, but Santa Ana School Police called city police at 8:40 a.m.
Santa Ana Unified is the only district in Orange County which has its own police department. Some have called for it to be abolished. Others want to see it beefed up.
Leal, the district’s spokesman, declined to comment on specifics of the Taft incident but emphasized student safety remains the district’s “top priority.”
“We are reviewing our current safety measures at Taft, including the light notification system,” Leal said.
The marquees have three lights on the top. If used, white stands for announcements, blue means lockdown, and red means there’s a fire or earthquake emergency, according to staff members.
Leal said the color system had been set up by the school; district administrators are reviewing how it’s been used.
“This is part of the entire ongoing review of all safety measures at the school site,” he wrote in an e-mail Thursday.
“Going forward, the district will develop a standardized color code system, instead of the school doing that,” Leal said. “The threat levels would be fire, lockout (a threat outside campus that requires students and staff to remain locked inside buildings and classrooms), and lock down (an active threat within the campus that also requires students and staff to remain locked inside classrooms and buildings).”
For some, such as Amezcua, the recent incident only underscores complaints about leadership and safety training. During the recent school board meeting, she publicly castigated the superintendent for not informing school board members about the incident earlier. She said she learned about it from parents who have said they were only notified about two hours after it happened.
Amezcua and fellow trustees apologized to educators and parents — who expressed concerns during the school board meeting — for what happened.
“Currently, the leadership at the school does not support that or care about the safety of our children,” parent Amber Gamez said.
Several offered emotional testimony, like Velado, one of the aides who choked up when she told the board: “I’m a mother … my kids could have lost their mom.”
“This is one example of many of how DHH staff and students are constantly an afterthought,” Rios said. “When will DHH students and staff be seen and heard? Are we not important?”
Several parents, in interviews with the Register, said they fear for their children’s safety and want to see more security — particularly near the school gates — and they want to see tools like the marquees used campus-wide.
“My fear is that something like this could happen again, and we could have a tragedy like in Texas,” said Joana Sotelo, a parent of two children at the school who was there that morning.
Does she have confidence in the safety of her school? “No. Not all.”
Her son, fourth-grader Emanuel Magana, said he was nervous to return to school. And he felt bad for the kids who were struck by the car, one of whom is in his class.
Along with fellow classmates, they made her a get-well card.
Source: Orange County Register