Parents drop off their children at Idyllwild School on Thursday, Aug. 16.
Photo by Debra Varnado

It’s early August and fall is approaching. “Judi,” a fictitious Idyllwild School mom, is scrambling to buy school supplies, and new shoes and clothes for her kids so they’ll be ready for the new school year fast approaching. At the same time, she worries about getting them to school on time every day and ensuring they get healthy, nutritious lunches.

She hopes they will love their new teachers, learn a lot and have fun with their friends. She is reluctant to part with the waning days of summer — and she is harried.

Time passes; it’s Aug. 13, Monday, the first day of school. The kids and backpacks are ready and waiting in the car. Everyone is excited and anxious.

She drives up Highway 243, pulls into the parking lot of a restaurant near the school. She drops her third-grader off on the playground at the main parking lot gate, then heads toward the kindergarten gate, but it’s 7:40 a.m., too early to leave her daughter, so they go through the cafeteria door to find her teacher. She notices a sign: “New Safe Closed Campus Rules. Beginning Monday, August 13.”

Craig Bellinger and his son Judah Stevens enter the new security doors inside the front office at Idyllwild School on Thursday, Aug. 16. Photo by Debra Varnado

“What’s that all about,” she wonders? The next day, she follows the same routine, but stops to read the notice: “Parents, visitors and volunteers may not enter the school through the cafeteria door or the main parking lot gate and must check-in at the front office up to 4:00 p.m.”

“Judi” heads to the front office with her daughter in tow, and sees the floor-to-ceiling, locked-door glass barrier and is taken aback.

The new barrier is one of the more conspicuous components of the Hemet Unified School District’s safe closed-campus rules. Implemented Aug. 13 and 14, the rules also address pick-up/drop-off procedures, the entrances and exits to be used, closure of a street crossing, and the lack of parking on an adjacent restaurant’s parking lot. The rules were posted at the school and announced in automated phone messages to the school community.

The barrier, in particular, has been the focus of attention. Some parents support it half- and whole-heartedly, while others are deeply disappointed. According to Principal Matt Kraemer, “there’s somewhat of a Facebook storm brewing for the parents that are not happy.

Idyllwild School Principal Matt Kraemer displays a new feature that’s part of the school’s safety program.
Photo by Debra Varnado

“Students have only one entrance to the school and parents have only one entrance to the school,” he told the Town Crier reporter Aug. 16. “We are the very last school [in the district] to be able to enforce the closed-campus rules as the culture of the school has always been an open campus and I’ve embraced having an open campus with the community.

“We haven’t had the physical structures in place to initiate the rules, but now we do. Without the barrier, it is difficult to control who goes in and out of the office and the hallway.

“The objective is to keep the students safe in light of recent events in the news and the increase of violence on campus brought in from the outside. It’s incumbent that we provide security measures to prevent any sort of violent act initiated by outside sources.”

Prior to meeting with the reporter — and to emphasize the importance of the new rules — Kraemer pointed to a man standing on the other side of Highway 243,opposite the school.

  “Earlier this morning, he was sitting on the school’s steps,” Kraemer said, “but left quietly after I asked him to leave.” That man was a stranger to the school community.

When asked how the new rules have affected the school, Kraemer said, “The culture has changed. Many parents have stopped me and said they really appreciate that the barrier was put in place and steps were taken. I have others that are having difficulty adjusting to the culture change.”

Kraemer recalled the mother of a primary-grade student who was “upset … frustrated because she is not able to walk her child to the door of the classroom everyday … She was able to do that last year.

“That is what’s hard about a shift in culture. It is a change — and I am happy about making the campus safer — but sad that we have to lose some of those connections.

  “I’ve been letting her sign in and walk her child to class. She still has that option for a period of time, for this transition at the beginning of the year, but not throughout the year.

“In my opinion, among the ones that have come to me, more [parents] have been in favor than against. Every school that’s initiated the policy goes through a transition where you have parents that are upset by it. And we looked closely at other schools within the district and what their guidelines were.

‘Safety is the number one priority’

  “Last year at the school’s ‘Local Control and Accountability Plans’ meetings, parents were able to voice how they wanted funds spent,” Kraemer said. That’s what came from those meetings. ‘Safety is the number one priority.’ They wanted the school to be more secure so it would be safer from people coming in and creating violence in the school.”

Kraemer said the new barrier was paid for through the district’s Safety, Operations and Maintenance budget and when asked how much it cost, he said, “I don’t know; I am just glad it is not coming from my budget.”

Speaking of the barrier, Idyllwild School Mom Liv Kellgren said, “I think it is tragic, but it has to be implemented in this day and age. It is pretty [much] expected and appreciated; I do appreciate it.

“We just moved here … It is our first year here and my first experience in getting our kids in school. I have a boy in kindergarten and a girl in first grade, and this is all I know. It is fine with me.

“One of the biggest reasons why we moved up here was so we could give our kids the safe, small-town experience and bring our family closer together. My husband’s son committed suicide in October, and we looked at our kids and realized that something had to change. We really wanted to bring our family here and to know our neighbors. We did not know our neighbors down in Temecula Valley and in San Diego.

“So then, to realize that on the first day of school they are implementing these safety features, it kind of felt like a ‘kick-in-the-gut’ because I was kind of hoping we were immune from that — from life off the Hill.”

Security cameras, crosswalks and no parking at Mile High Cafe

Kraemer said that at some point in the school year, security cameras will be installed. “Locations have not been decided, but they’ll definitely be on entry and exit points of the school.

“We also have a campus supervisor and an armed deputy up here one day a week as a resource. The deputy comes as needed, too. That’s why he’s been here quite frequently this week in the morning helping during arrival and dismissal times in the parking lot.

“We have not received any threats against the school itself in the last 10 years that I have been here, but we’ve had very few cases [where] there have been threats against me and other staff members. Nothing ever happened, but we initiated and had to put some procedures in place.

“We have someone at the crosswalk. And we’re helping a local business. Mile High Café has been losing business because in the past, parents have been taking up spaces in their parking lot in the mornings and people have been bypassing the restaurant thinking that the restaurant’s full.”

Under the safe closed-campus rules, “Parking will not be available at Mile High Café for drop-off and pickup”

Other safety and security measures not implemented as part of safe closed-campus rules

The Lobby Guard sign-in system in the receptionist area of the front lobby has been utilized for three years. Parents like “Judi,” who want to visit their child’s teacher, must type their name and the reason for their visit into the counter-top kiosk. Their drivers’ licenses are scanned, their pictures are taken and backgrounds checks are instantly conducted.

“Lobby Guard triggers an alert to us if the background check comes up with a negative finding,” Kraemer said. “If it shows a felony, [for example, for ‘Judi’], the parent will not be allowed through the barrier until we straighten that out.”

The school’s Safety Plan — which is separate from the closed-campus rules —involves monthly fire drills. Other drills, including for lockdowns, sheltering-in-place, earthquakes, evacuation and more, are scheduled during the year.

  The Safety Department of the school district is developing active-shooter plans and drills, according to Kraemer. “We have to be aware that active-shooter drills for the elementary [grades] are difficult because you can create a lot of anxiety for younger kids. They are really easier to initiate in secondary schools.”