Like many K-12 campuses across Southern California, S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Riverside is surrounded by fences.
“There is no walking onto any of our campuses,” said Allan Mucerino, superintendent of the Alvord Unified School District, which runs the 640-student school in the La Sierra neighborhood. “You have to go through the gate or sneak on.”
Because an intruder who attacked a child in a restroom Friday, Aug. 19, did not go through the front gate and was seen hopping the 6-foot chain-link perimeter fence as he fled, authorities say the man likely climbed a fence to get on campus.
Experts say a stronger type of fence might prevent a similar entry in the future.
A registered sex offender, Logan Allen Nighswonger, 32, of Riverside was arrested a few hours later on Friday in Placentia, in connection with the attack at McAuliffe.
On Tuesday, Aug. 23, Nighswonger was charged with forcible lewd acts on a child, accessing a K-12 campus without permission and a sentence-enhancing allegation of committing a sexual assault during a burglary. Court documents allege Nighswonger cornered and groped a 10-year-old girl in a school restroom for an unspecified period, then ran away. He pleaded not guilty.
Now officials at the district that serves more than 17,000 students in the western Riverside area and part of northeast Corona are grappling with how to stop another dangerous person from getting onto a campus.
“We have to do everything we can to deter that,” Mucerino said. “We have to do everything we can to make that next to impossible.”
One move that might help is replacing the chain-link perimeter fencing with something stronger.
Chain link is easy to climb
“Chain link is like a ladder,” said Ron Stephens, executive director for the National School Safety Center in Agoura Hills. “It’s one of the easiest fences to climb.”
Stephens recommends that schools shift to fences fashioned of wrought iron or a similar hardened material that is more difficult to scale, if districts can afford it.
He also suggests constant monitoring of video cameras and stationing staff members strategically throughout a campus.
“Despite all the high-tech strategies, the single most effective strategy for keeping schools safe is the physical presence of a responsible adult in the immediate vicinity,” he said.
Rattled parents of children who attend McAuliffe have been calling this week for new security measures, such as taller fences after the news of Friday’s attack.
A town-hall-style meeting is set for 6:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, at McAuliffe to address families’ concerns.
Mucerino said officials will take a closer look at security measures, including fencing, following the attack. Those efforts, he said, will build on the recent creation of an Office of School Safety and a continuing evaluation of campus security.
In a July 17 newsletter to the district community, Mucerino reported the school board has placed on the November ballot a $248 million bond measure that would pay for enhanced school safety, updated technology and modernized facilities. Security upgrades could include fencing, outdoor lighting and cameras, he wrote. The bond will be Measure J on the ballot, according to Riverside County election officials.
Schools have just one way in
Across the Inland Empire, school security is a top priority, as it is at Alvord Unified.
The Redlands Unified School District, for example, has made a point of surrounding schools with fences and gates, and limiting access at all campuses to a single point of entry when class is in session, district spokesperson Christine Stephens wrote in an email.
Before and after school, the Riverside Unified School District opens a limited number of gates, district spokesperson Diana Meza wrote, and staff members monitor each one. Most gates are closed and locked after students arrive.
“Once the instructional day has begun, all visitors & outsiders are required to register in the office to request permission to enter the closed campus for specific reasons,” Meza wrote.
Riverside Unified, Meza said, uses a software system made by Raptor Technologies to conduct instant background checks on visitors via their identification. Visitors to campuses of the San Bernardino City Unified School District, which also use the system, must provide driver’s licenses, district spokesperson Ginger Ontiveros said.
“If you don’t have one, you’re not going to get onto the campus,” added Martinrex Kedziora, superintendent of the Moreno Valley Unified School District, which relies on the technology, too.
Some districts also have sought to improve security by strengthening perimeter fences.
Among them is the Corona-Norco Unified School District, one of the region’s largest with 52 schools and 50,000 students.
Galvanized steel fences seen as better
Fences to keep out intruders was one selling point of Corona-Norco’s $396 million Measure GG that voters passed in 2014. Officials used some bond proceeds to replace about 90% of the chain link fences wrapped around district campuses with fencing fashioned with galvanized steel, Coordinator of Campus Security and Safety Steve Ellis said.
“And the bars on it are vertical, so you can’t get your toe in it like you can in a chain link fence,” Ellis said.
“Nothing’s impossible,” he said, but it’s a lot harder to scale a galvanized-steel fence.
The district also installed security cameras on every campus, he said.
Decades ago, Ellis said, fences largely were intended to keep kids in school.
“Now the goal is to keep intruders out of schools,” he said.
San Bernardino City Unified also upgraded fences, Ontiveros said.
The district installed “anti-climb vinyl coated 1-inch mesh fencing at 22 sites,” she wrote in an email. “And some of our newer schools have wrought iron fencing as high as 8 feet.”
There are also video cameras at every San Bernardino campus, she said, and the district’s police department monitors them.
“We continue to make safety upgrades all the time,” Ontiveros wrote. “Fencing is only one line of defense against a determined intruder. We have focused on layering multiple measures to keep our students safe.”
Moreno Valley schools invested $2.79 million last year and in 2020 to convert chain-link fences to vertical-oriented, galvanized-steel fences at its 23 elementary schools, Kedziora said.
The district spent another $1.8 million over the past four years to install security cameras at all 40 district schools.
Riverside Unified campuses have both chain-link and tube-steel fencing, Meza said.
Over at McAuliffe, some immediate measures have been taken in response to last week’s attack.
The school is forming a parent patrol in which volunteers — after passing a background check — will closely watch specific locations during student drop-off and pickup and during recess. Students are asked to take a “buddy” with them when they use the restroom. And the bathroom where the assault occurred has been closed indefinitely, Mucerino said, as officials determine how best to monitor that area.
“We’re just trying to focus on listening and making necessary changes,” he said.
Ellis, Corona-Norco’s security coordinator, called the assault on the child “absolutely tragic.”
“There is nothing more tragic than a terrible event like this,” Ellis said.
At the same time, he said, it underscores the need for educators everywhere “to always reevaluate and make improvements to keep our kids safe.”
What: A town-hall-style meeting to address family concerns after an intruder entered McAuliffe Elementary School on Friday, Aug. 19, and attacked a student.
When: Thursday, Aug. 25, 6:15 p.m.
Where: McAuliffe Elementary School, 4100 Golden Ave, Riverside