O.C. Sheriff’s Dept. takes a SMART approach to keeping schools safe from violence, threats
For nearly 16 years, the armed security guard patrolled the private school in south Orange County.
He had become such a fixture that school administrators pretty much left Richard Eugene Parsons alone, allowing him to place a portable shed in a parking lot he sometimes would sleep in when he worked late shifts and had to open the school early the next day.
So it came as a surprise to school administrators when, on May 11, four Orange County Sheriff’s deputies dressed in street clothes paid Parsons a visit after the Laguna Beach PD had issued a BOLO (Be on the Lookout) alert.
And it came as a complete shock to them when they learned what deputies found inside Parsons’ shed: an arsenal of weapons, including a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle loaded with a 30-round magazine and a Remington 870 shotgun loaded with two 12-gauge shotgun shells.
The two weapons were hanging from a coat hook on the interior side of the entry door to the shed. Neither weapon had any kind of locking device preventing them from being immediately used.
In a safe, deputies found 11 rifles and a 9mm semi-automatic “sub gun.”
They also found a security guard who worked for Parsons at the school carrying a .40 semi-automatic handgun – a gun he told deputies Parsons furnished him with when he reported to work.
The deputies quickly learned that Parsons, 55, had his armed guard permit revoked in 2005 and didn’t have a valid CCW (Carry Concealed Weapon) permit. His employee, Justin Burgess Roth, 35, also was unlawfully carrying a firearm for a job in which he and Parsons weren’t even required to carry weapons.
The hair-raising discovery of the arsenal, and the subsequent arrest of Parsons, who has been charged with felony possession of an unauthorized assault weapon and possession of a firearm on school grounds, is one of the more significant cases of the year investigated by the OCSD’s School Mobile Assessment Resource Team (SMART). There was no evidence Parsons was planning an attack on the school, officials said.
Formed in July 2001 as a response to the unfortunate uptick in violence at schools and the threat of violence at schools nationwide, the unit of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department responds to all incidents related to violence, threats of violence, possession and/or use of weapons, unstable behaviors, and suicidal actions or tendencies that pose a threat to others on a school campus.
“They do a phenomenal job,” said Lt. Mitch Wang, of the OCSD’s Southeast Patrol Operations, which is housed in the Saddleback Station in Lake Forest. “I would clone them if I could.”
SMART is small but critical when it comes to maintaining the safety of K-12 students in the OCSD’s jurisdiction (which includes the largest school districts of Capistrano, Saddleback and portions of many north O.C. school districts).
Sgt. Todd Russ, a 22-year OCSD veteran, runs the unit, which includes two deputies, Cynthia Mata and Scott Ferraro, and Investigator Alejandro “Alex” Salceda.
Mata, a school resource officer (SRO) in Villa Park, is on loan to SMART while another deputy who will soon join the unit, Mike Woodruff, wraps up training.
“I’m not legitimately SMART yet,” Mata quipped.
Indeed, Mata and her colleagues are trained in the art of assessing threats of violence, criminal investigation, case management and referrals to mandatory counseling, when the situation requires it.
Partly funded by the O.C. Probation Department (which handles juvenile arrestees), SMART takes care of the investigative work after school resource officers — uniformed deputies who work at schools — or school administrators report an incident.
For the years 2011 and 2012, SMART responded to 402 calls for service, conducted 309 threat assessments, made 77 arrests, and confiscated 87 weapons.
In 2015, SMART responded to 186 calls for service, made 63 arrests and confiscated 69 weapons, the majority of them knives.
Russ, who has been in charge of the unit since the end of February, has been woken up at 2 a.m. by school officials reporting threats of violence posted on social media.
Many threats are pranks, Russ said, but he noted intent doesn’t matter — it’s how the threat is perceived that makes it a crime. For example, if students are scared enough by a threat to stay home, the person who made the threat can face serious criminal charges.
Prior to a recent interview at the OCSD’s Saddleback Station, the members of SMART spent a good portion of the morning responding to an elementary school in Anaheim.
A male adult had left a voicemail on the school’s business line, saying there might be a bomb or a weapon on the campus. The voicemail came shortly before students started arriving for summer school.
OCSD patrol deputies cleared the school and deemed it safe, and SMART started investigating. They honed in on an adult male as a “person of interest.”
The calls SMART responds to can range from fights resulting in significant injuries to an active shooter.
“I have two kids in grade school,” Investigator Salceda said, “and it’s important they are able to go to school and be safe there. For me, this is more than a job. For me, it’s a little more personal.”
So it is, also, for Mata, who does not have children but who considers all the students she works with at Villa Park schools “my kids.”
There is no other law enforcement agency in O.C. with a team like SMART, said Russ. PDs rely on SROs as their “boots on the ground” when an incident occurs and then sent patrol officers and whatever other resources they may need to an incident. What makes SMART unique is that it is able to take a case from the beginning and see it to the end.
Ferraro said SMART members wear polo shirts and slacks (and, in the case of Mata, blouses) to make subjects feel more relaxed when they’re being interviewed.
“We often deal with troubled kids; sometimes their parents aren’t even aware they have issues,” Ferraro said. “In many cases, we’re able to offer resources and work with the parents to try to get their kids help. We have our PRYDE (Pepperdine Resource Youth Diversion and Education) program we can refer kids to in the hopes of helping them.”
One of the aspects of Russ’ relatively new job that most appeals to him is the ability to prevent bad stuff from happening — not the typical role of patrol deputies.
“In this unit,” he said, “there’s a lot of focus on going out and assessing things that might happen. Kids are pretty adept with putting information out there (on social media) that might be a sign of something, and our team, when we get the information, is good at determining if there’s an actual threat.”
SMART, for example, has investigated a threat of a mass shooting at an O.C. school over the Internet. Team members were able to trace the threat of two suspects who live out of state.
“Some people enjoy the rush of getting a reaction from making a threat and scaring people,” Salceda said.
Added Russ: “The anonymity of social media is the biggest hurdle we have to overcome.”