San Bernardino, Calif.
Dale Marsden has lived a superintendent’s worst nightmare—armed intruders threatening his students or staff—not just once, but twice in the five years he’s led this large school district.
Those terrifying events, and the city’s ongoing struggles with poverty and crime, have showcased several of Marsden’s gifts: his foresight in emergency preparedness, his flair for personal connections, and his calm, humane style of management.
For Marsden, 51, security is built through handshakes and conversation. The relationships he’s forged with school and community leaders have paid off handsomely in swift, compassionate responses to the shootings, and in building a culture of support in the 76 schools in his district in the arid foothills east of Los Angeles.
“Most of the work around safety is really about building the culture, and that’s all about relationships,” he said.
A Tough Environment
Marsden had his work cut out for him when he took the helm of the district in 2012. The city of San Bernardino was in bankruptcy. It regularly appeared on lists of the nation’s worst places to live, with high unemployment, gang warfare, and a murder rate worse than Chicago’s. Ninety percent of the school system’s 53,000 students live in poverty.
Marsden had led a nearby K-6 district and been a teacher and principal in elementary schools. In the Air Force, he’d overseen security for ground-launched cruise missiles in Germany. But his new job posed a new set of challenges.
The most immediate one, five years ago, was figuring out what his beleaguered community needed from its schools. Marsden “embedded himself” in the city, as one activist says, buying a house in a part of town not known as the best and enrolling his children in the city schools, choices that carried symbolic power for a white superintendent in a predominantly Latino and black community.
Marsden kicked off a series of public meetings to take the city’s pulse. He huddled with city and school district police, business, higher education and faith leaders, and community-service providers.
“He was everywhere,” said Margaret Hill, the president of the school board. “We didn’t expect to see him in every part of the community like that. But he was and still is.”
What impressed the Rev. Ray Turner most about Marsden was his willingness to listen to all parts of the community and his proclivity for follow-up.
“He calls people back or has his staff call them back,” said Turner, the pastor of the Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a mostly African-American congregation in town.
Joe Guerra worked for an insurance company that provides coverage to district employees. Now retired, he recalls that Marsden outdid himself soliciting attendance at his community-engagement meetings.
“They must have had over 1,000 people at those meetings,” he said. “There were so many people they had to have guards directing people where to park.”
Assurances of Safety
From those gatherings, one thing emerged loud and clear: Local people wanted assurance that their children would be safe in their schools. Marsden and the board added a new strand to the district’s strategic plan: health, wellness, and safety.
It includes initiatives like healthy eating and exercise, a “modern” approach to policing, expanded access to mental-health and domestic-violence support, and a new, gentler approach to student-behavior problems.
Under Marsden’s leadership, the district embraced a “positive discipline” approach to misbehavior that favors discussion and problem-solving. In the last five years, arrests and citations dropped 59 percent, expulsions declined by 58 percent, and suspensions fell 26 percent. Those infractions declined among all groups of students, even those who traditionally suffer disproportionate rates of discipline, such as African-American students.
Student test scores are rising, too, and the high school graduation rate reached 86 percent in 2016, higher than the national average, and up from 74 percent four years earlier. Those trends held true for every group of students, even those who have tended to lag behind their peers, such as English-learners and students with disabilities.
The superintendent wanted to ensure a steady stream of student feedback, so he created an advisory council of high school students from every school in the district, including the continuation schools.
At a fall advisory council meeting about safety, students told stories of bullying, crime, and depression among their peers. Maybe security guards shouldn’t be so quick with the pepper spray, one girl said. We could use more mental-health support, one boy said.
Marsden told them he wanted their input so he and his team could “know you as people, understand you, help you.”
“We want to make sure our schools are safe places, and that means emotionally safe, too,” he said.
As students talked in groups about ways to make school life better, Marsden walked from table to table, leaning down low to listen quietly to their discussions.
The focus on emotional well-being goes hand in hand with physical safety. Schools conduct regular lockdown drills. The district had been conducting armed-intruder training since 2000, the year after the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School.
But it upped its game after Marsden arrived, with full-scale, districtwide exercises in 2013 and 2015 to practice response to an active shooter. Marsden views those practices as an attempt to be “thoughtful, not reactive, in our response to emergencies.”
The superintendent stepped up communication, too, aiming for broad inclusion and instant connection. Sudha Venkatesan, the district’s director of secondary education, said Marsden conducts frequent, spontaneous conference calls that include all administrators and principals. “There must be 200 people on those calls,” she said. “I’ve never worked in a large district where principals have such access to the superintendent, where they can hear the news directly from his mouth and discuss it with him.” He also is quick to post videos and updates on social media, using Facebook and other platforms to connect with families.
We want to make sure our schools are safe places, and that means emotionally safe too.
All those connections and precautions paid off when the worst happened. On Dec. 2, 2015, two radical Islamists barged into a building where dozens of county workers were huddled in a daylong training, only two miles from one of San Bernardino’s elementary schools.
Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire, killing 14 people and injuring 24 others. Schools went on immediate lockdown, sheltering students and teachers from harm. Police officers fatally shot both attackers later in the day.
A federal report on that shooting praised the responses of local law enforcement and the school district, noting that the relationships among agency leaders that were built before the attack were central to their effective, coordinated response. The report also suggested improving communications between school sites so they could stay better connected during emergencies.
A ‘Calming Leader’
Taking a page from his military training, Marsden had each school and department conduct “after-action reviews”—more than 90 in all—to reflect on what they had learned from the attack and offer ideas about how procedures could be changed. Community meetings added feedback as well.
Marsden expanded the district police force and moved from part-time to 24/7 coverage. He installed video-surveillance cameras on every campus, resulting in drops in the burglaries that had dogged many campuses. Single points of entry were created for elementary schools, to keep better tabs on who goes in and out. The district also began rolling out a centralized communication system that lets parents get texts, emails, or robocalls in the event of an emergency.
But then it happened again: On April 10, 2017, the estranged husband of a special education teacher, signed in at the front office, then barged into her classroom at North Park Elementary School and fatally shot her, killing an 8-year-old boy and wounding a 9-year-old student in the process before killing himself. Front-office staff allowed him to sign in and proceed to the classroom because they knew him.
In the midst of that trauma and grief, the district moved again into its characteristic analysis phase, with community meetings and reflections on how to improve safety. It is now piloting a system to scan visitors’ driver’s licenses before admitting them.
For Carrie Gilbreth, the 2017 shooting, as frightening as it was, represents why she feels safe having her two adolescent children in the San Bernardino schools.
Not only was Marsden on the scene right away, ensuring that North Park students were whisked away to a nearby high school, he also made sure the children had “a comforting environment” there, she said. Marsden quickly posted a video on Facebook addressing the tragedy and outlining steps for community healing, Gilbreth said.
“It came right from his own mouth. We could see him, hear him,” she said. “He’s that calming leader that we need in a very stressful situation. That’s his greatest personal strength.”