SELMA – In the aftermath of a Sept. 16 shooting that took place during Selma High’s half-time band performance, community members packed both City Council and school safety meetings this week looking for solutions to increased gun violence and gang activity.
At a Sept. 21 safety forum at Selma High, Police Chief Greg Garner informed citizens of how recent sweeps have resulted in even more arrests and fielded questions about what additional steps could be taken. Garner said citizens will see more officers brought in during not only school activities but any event in town that will draw a crowd.
“You’ll see from this point at every football game a much, much larger police presence. You’ll see police cars on Thompson Avenue the entire time and on Huntsman patrolling the whole area,” he said. “You’ll see some of our Volunteers in Policing in the area and even some of our Explorers have volunteered to be part of that effort.”
Although not directly connected to the shooting, Garner said a 23-year-old man was arrested at a house on the 2300 block of Thompson Avenue and a 32-year-old man was arrested at a house on the 2500 block of Lewis.
Safety code violations found at those residences resulted in deeming the properties unsafe to occupy and the houses were boarded and fenced.
“On [Sept. 20], right around the corner was a similar situation. A subject who’s known to be on probation was at a location he wasn’t supposed to be at,” Garner said. “The house was searched and a pump-action shotgun, automatic handgun, several hundred rounds of ammunition and methamphetamines were found.”
Garner said he expects more arrests will result as an operation is now in place in which officers are gathering information.
“You’re going to be hearing about more arrests, more weapons and more narcotics confiscated in an effort to put a lid on this spike in weapons-related offenses,” he said.
During the meeting, Garner and Selma High Principal Mark Babiarz fielded questions from parents about current safety procedures, lockdown protocol and how the school is dealing with students involved in gangs.
Babiarz said additional fencing has been installed on berms at the high school stadium, better locks have been installed at the school’s front gates and a rolling gate will be installed towards the rear of the school. Additional safety measures, such as more lighting and the installation video cameras, are also being considered.
“The goal is to make the facility difficult to access by people who don’t need to access it,” he said.
One parent brought up a concern about the number of lockdowns called at the school and asked why a complete lockdown is called even though a warrant being served is for a non-violent offense.
Babiarz said he’d rather err on the side of caution and call for a code blue. Even Garner agreed it can’t be predicted when a simple warrant may turn violent.
“Everything [the police] do is serious out there," he said. "I don’t know if a [suspect] will climb the fence. We’ve never called a code yellow. I do just code blue because I want a lockdown because we have such a big area.”
The high school is taking other steps to address safety, such as adding two more campus security officers, teaching positive behavior techniques and bringing in psychologists to help students deal with deeper issues.
The school district also has an online reporting system known as Sprigeo, in which safety issues can be reported anonymously by students and staff. Assistant Principal Sato Sanikian said students can also talk to school personnel if they’re concerned about potential problems on campus.
“That’s what I keep telling the students: ‘I need you guys to talk to me if something’s bothering you. Let me know and I’ll get on it right away,’” he said.
In answering a parent’s question, Sanikian said steps are taken to identify and counsel students involved in gangs, but some do wind up being removed to an alternative school setting.
“Students are given gang notices and, by a third violation, are sent to an alternative school," he said. "We are proactive and call in students who exhibit those behaviors. We’ll look through their binders and backpacks and we have that gang intervention with them.”
Even with 152 more students enrolled on campus this year, Sanikian says data shows there was a 50 percent drop in fights during the first 24 days of school compared to the previous year.
During the Sept. 19 City Council meeting, calls for short and long-term action to restore a sense of safety to the community ranged from hiring more officers to taking specific steps to curb gang activity.
“Other cities have imposed gang injunctions and that has worked for them, why not us?” asked resident Dan Barcellos.
He was among those advocating that the city use money allocated by the state to build a new police station and focus any other fundraising efforts on hiring more officers.
“It’s been brought to my attention that Chief Garner has approached the council for more officers each fiscal year, however it has been denied by the council,” he said
Barcellos also called for Garner to either step down or present a concrete plan of action.
“Lead with your direction. Find solutions and protect our city to make us feel safe again," he said. "If you cannot do this, I ask that you resign or the City Council needs to find a replacement and remove you from your position,"
Resident Yolanda Torrez disagreed with Garner’s earlier statement that there hadn’t been any shootings over the past two months in town until the incident near the high school. She cited 22 reports of shots fired since June and argued that not labeling them as shootings doesn’t negate that guns are being discharged in town.
“Shootings are not considered the same as shots-fired calls. That’s ridiculous to me," she said. "Shots fired are even more dangerous because that’s where innocent bystanders are hit. Let’s just call it what it is. They are shootings in our city."
Torrez called on the City Council to place the hiring of additional officers on the agenda of an upcoming meeting so at least six officers can be on patrol during each shift. She also called on the council to relieve Garner of either his position as chief or acting city manager, as she feels it is a conflict of interest.
“I don’t understand how the chief of police can also be appointed city manager as well. That’s a conflict of interest because he holds his own budget in his own hands," she said. "We ask you as well to take care of that immediately and relieve him of one of his positions. We don’t see a recall of any of you."
Selma High student Savneesh Athwal, who was in the stands during the shooting, said the event traumatized many students.
“Friday night was probably one of the scariest nights of my life," she said. "I’ve never been in a situation where I didn’t know what to do. I don’t want to feel like ever again, especially at a football game where I should be having fun."
Athwal said she’s now afraid to attend the games and said many students feel the same way.
“I know it’s not just me, going to school today and hearing everybody talk about what happened," she said. "It’s kind of disappointing. I shouldn’t be scared to go to school.”
Despite the increase of security officers on campus, Athwal said seeing students who appear to be involved in gangs at school is robbing others of their sense of safety.
“We have more security members at school now, but there seems to more fights at school and more violence. I shouldn’t be going to school and be scared all the time.”