Q&A: The Week in the Life of Superintendent John Deasy Following the Shooting at Sandy Hook

One week after a shooter forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and killed twenty students and six adults, we checked in with Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy to find out how he responded—professionally and personally—to the tragedy

It has been seven days since the shooting in Connecticut. As a superintendent who is possibly hundreds of districts away from Sandy Hook Elementary School, what was this week like for you?
I’ve just been so sad. It’s been a very sad week. As you look at the coverage, you’re just so grieved by it. That’s my first reaction. I remember talking to my kids and my wife this week a couple of times and every time it’s like, Could you imagine if it was my kid? Or, Could you imagine how you would support the teachers? And the answer is yes, I could. It’s so awful because it’s not like a natural disaster; it was a willful act.

The rest of the week was spent with staff. We did a quick audit of every single safety plan. Our kids aren’t in school this week and we got a lot done around that issue. We wanted to make sure that every school has one and 100% of the schools have a safety plan on file. The second thing was to work with the LAPD and the news conference we did together—I am incredibly grateful for the support of the LAPD. And now we’re planning for students to return in the second week of January.

Where were you when you heard the news?
I got a call from my office. I was at a meeting in New York and so we didn’t have access to TVs, but then we were surrounded by it. It was on TV, in the newspapers… One of the things that struck my mind is, what will the holidays be like for those families? I’m very, very saddened by the fact that every holiday going forward will be a remembrance of that. That’s one thing that has been on my mind a lot this week.

Did you feel the need to rush back to Los Angeles?
I was scheduled to fly back the next day. Our schools were closed and we didn’t have a crisis in L.A., but I was slated to come back and I spent the weekend planning with the LAPD. On Monday they began to share what we’re going to do when school resumes.

What was the response to the tragedy from LAUSD families like?
We had had numerous calls and emails, but that stopped after our news conference. People just want to be assured that there’s a plan. People want to be assured of how we would respond to safety concerns.

Did any comments or responses surprise you?

What about the LAUSD staff? This must have been an emotional experience for them, too.
From them the response was we have a job to do and let’s get about doing that. I can’t say it was an out of the ordinary response by our staff at all. But the mood was very, very somber. It’s not your typical, joyous time of year. That’s the best way to put it. It’s quite markedly different

The district has braced really significant budget cuts over the past few years, but a school police presence was maintained—
Our safety budget was never cut

Are there plans to increase that budget in response to the shooting or do you feel it’s at an appropriate level?
I have a plan that I am working through that would expand [the budget for] safety support at schools. It is a significant fiscal struggle because we’re in the middle of a fiscal year. I feel the need to expand the budget it in the current year, and that’s always difficult. You’ll see that from me in the month of January.

In your professional opinion, what, if anything, do we need to learn from this tragedy?
I don’t know the answer to that question. That’s why I believe in preventative safety. I don’t know if it’s a one off. I don’t know how to respond except [to accept] it happened. And our first job is safety coupled with achievement. That’s why I so strongly believe that the things we have in place are for a reason. Of course it’s easy to say so in hindsight, but that’s why we never cut, in all the terrible cuts, our safety budget. It’s the most preeminent issue in front of us.

What do you expect the mood to be like when school resumes?
There’s probably going to be a whole range.

For you, when will it be back to business as usual? Is there such a thing?
We’re in L.A., responding to something that happened in the nation and assuring people about the safety measures here. That’s how we can go about maintaining vigilance and monitoring and support. Our schedule this week is fully engaged. The state budget is due on January 1. The entire district’s budget has to be completed. And two major reports for the board have to be completed. We don’t cancel things—you have to keep going.

Photograph courtesy lausd.net

ALSO: Read “The Takeover Artist,” Ed Leibowitz’s September 2012 profile of John Deasy