Students, teachers and staff at Palo Alto High School took shelter in classrooms, offices and other lockable spaces on Thursday afternoon as the police department investigated a phoned-in threat of violence, which was later determined to be "likely a hoax." According to several students, an announcement over the school's PA system stated the threat was of a shooter on campus.
The lockdown was an all-too-real test of important safety procedures the school district has in place in the event of an attack on one of its campuses. Mass shootings, though still relatively infrequent, have forced schools across the country to prepare for the unthinkable.
A Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, has renewed school administrators' focus on campus safety across the country. Much like Palo Alto, Parkland is a relatively affluent suburb, where more than 60 percent of wage earners bring in $100,000 a year or more — a slightly higher percentage than in Palo Alto, according to U.S. Census data.
Palo Alto Unified has an array of safety procedures in place in the event of an attack. All schools annually review and update their safety plans, which are required under California Education code and outline how the campuses would respond to various emergencies, from an active shooter to a fire or earthquake.
Some schools also provide safety information in student and staff handbooks. This year's Gunn High School student handbook, for example, explains what to do during a "code red" emergency — meaning there is an immediate threat on campus. Students and staff should "lock doors, build door and internal barricades, cover windows, turn off lights and be quiet."
The Santa Clara County Office of Education's Risk Management Department trains educators and staff on a "run, hide, defend/fight" strategy that aims to minimize the loss of life.
In 2008, Palo Alto Unified formed an emergency preparedness committee to bring together the different groups that might need to respond to a school shooting: district and site administrators, school resource officers and other police department representatives. The group is developing a new emergency operations plan to detail exactly "who will do what, when they will do it, with what resources, and by what authority before, during, and immediately after an emergency," including a shooting, said Mike Jacobs, a school maintenance foreman and parent who serves on the committee.
Every school must conduct a lockdown drill once a year. These drills, which consist of students and teachers sheltering in place in their classrooms, have long been led by the Palo Alto Police Department. The department also conducts lockdown drills at private schools in Palo Alto. Police spokesperson Capt. Zach Perron declined to provide specific details about the drills, in order to protect the department's tactical response. (Find out how Palo Alto police have changed their response to active-shooter situations here.)
All classroom doors in the district have since 2008 been equipped with Door Blok, small, black devices that allow teachers to quickly lock their doors from the inside if a shooter is on campus.
During a shooting, Palo Alto Unified staff can use their schools' PA systems to communicate with administrators, according to Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak. Paly student Lia Salvatierra told the Weekly that she heard directions over the loudspeaker on Thursday afternoon to shelter in a classroom and an announcement about 15 minutes later that the school was still on lockdown. Classroom phones also have an emergency call line to the police department.
Prompted by school shootings elsewhere in the country this year, the district has asked an insurance firm that conducts annual liability assessments for Palo Alto Unified to particularly scrutinize school safety, Mak said. The firm, Keenan & Associates, will spend more than a week in Palo Alto next month to evaluate the "vulnerability" of facilities at all of the district's schools.
"The focus is more looking from an insurance carrier's point of view but this year we've asked them to also do a vulnerability assessment," Mak said, "meaning (we've asked them to) give us feedback on perhaps the layout of the building(s), how can we improve making sure our layouts are safe."
This raises the vexing question of safety on open campuses like Palo Alto's. Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said she and some teachers are concerned about how open school grounds are.
"I'm conflicted about it because our campuses are beautiful and it's great that they are open in a lot of ways, but when I first moved here (from the East Coast) I was pretty surprised at how open they were," she said.
John Donohue, a Stanford University law professor who has conducted research on gun violence, said more restrictive campuses are not necessarily safer — students have found ways to get around metal detectors, for example — but are easier to monitor during a shooting.
"If a school is on lockdown, at least you can make sure everyone entering is going in through a single door, so someone is there to see them as opposed to an open campus where it's very hard to monitor who's actually walking onto a campus," Donohue said.
He said that future security measures could include using artificial intelligence and other technology to better monitor open campuses.
Parent Michelle Higgins remembers the conversations about school safety ignited by the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, when her older children were in elementary school. It was then that she became more aware of the lockdown drills and a zigzag running tactic that students are instructed to follow when fleeing an active shooter.
Higgins said she has not heard the same level of dialogue or concern among parents in the wake of the Parkland shooting. The Palo Alto Council of PTAs, on which she serves, has not discussed school safety but did approve a resolution in support of students' right to participate in a national gun-violence protest earlier this month.
She said she feels like the schools are adequately prepared — as much as they can be for an unpredictable situation.
"I feel like our schools have put in place what they can," Higgins said. "I think there's only so much the schools can do."
Palo Alto parent Mike Jacobs, who founded a company that aims to improve communication between schools and first responders during school shootings, said that there's a need for schools across the country to go beyond standard training procedures like lockdown drills. He thinks schools should be hiring professional emergency managers to help in a new era of school security.
"The real enemy of safety is not non-compliance but a lack of comprehension and training," Jacobs said. "We firmly believe that it's important to develop an environment of preparedness."