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Daily Pilot

Program aims to keep students secure

Longtime guards, donors, principals and the current superintendent are behind Costa Mesa High School security.

By Jeremiah Dobruck

8:13 PM PST, December 21, 2012

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A jumble of student skateboards sits in the corner; more than a dozen cameras feed to one large monitor on a desk; and half a dozen mug-shot-style pictures of identified intruders hang under the window in Costa Mesa High School's security office.

Along with the cameras, the three security guards at Mesa have more technology in their arsenal. Each carries a hand-held device containing records of the entire student body.

Albert Marron has worked security at the high school for about 12 years. Five years ago, he saw someone on campus he didn't recognize. He immediately asked the boy for a name and started using his device to check school records. Before he'd finished, the intruder took off running.

Marron radioed now-retired School Resource Officer Jess Gilman, who caught the boy, who was carrying a large knife, fleeing onto Fairview Road, Marron said.

In the week since the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., some school board trustees have singled out Mesa as an example of vigilance in Newport-Mesa Unified.

Principal Phil D'Agostino has worked at multiple schools in the district but praises his security colleagues at Mesa as the most professional he's seen.

"The surveillance systems are one tool in a huge toolbox of things," said D'Agostino, who gets a weekly security briefing from the three-person crew.

The masters of that toolbox are Marron and Richard Gomez, who have almost three decades of combined experience securing Mesa.

The two talk a lot about "intel." They investigate complaints after the fact and try to preempt any incidents by asking kids about what makes them uncomfortable on or around campus.

"You have to learn to dig without being intrusive," Gomez said, calling kids his No. 1 resource.

"Every school I think has to assess where their weaknesses are," he said. "I don't know what it is for every school. All I can do is try to assess what our weaknesses are and shore those up, and that's what we've done. That's what I think means that you can say, 'We're as safe as I think we could possibly be.'"

Right now, Newport-Mesa staff is doing assessment that on a districtwide level. The man at the head of that review, Supt. Fred Navarro, was Mesa's principal when its relatively high-tech security program began.

The school community pieced together enough money for the first handful of cameras in 2002.

Immediately, they saw a drop in graffiti, other vandalism and gang activity, according to Gomez and Navarro.

"It doesn't stop anything from happening, but you can get to the bottom of things," Navarro said.

While Navarro oversaw the advent of cameras, hand-held student records and the intel-based approach at Mesa, making that system a districtwide standard is a different animal.

"We're going to have that conversation," Navarro said, noting that the higher-tech systems are undoubtedly the wave of the future. "It's just [that] finances complicate things right now."

District staff expects a balanced budget will require cuts during the next fiscal year.

Gomez and Marron manage the upkeep of Mesa's system themselves, Navarro said, and the two lay responsibility for the campus' security squarely at their own feet, knowing they are the ones most likely to be nearby if the worst happens.

"When the chips are down, it's just going to be us anyway," Gomez said of himself, Marron and the third member of their team, who has been on campus for just a short while.

Just this year, Mesa's foundation kicked in $10,000 for an upgrade to the security system, adding more higher-resolution cameras.

"You're always assessing how to protect your house the best you can. This is our house. This is our home here," Gomez said. "These are our kids. We have to protect them."

jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck