In Parkland's wake, district reviews school safety | News | Palo Alto Online |


In Parkland's wake, district reviews school safety

Parents, educators, police consider how to protect Palo Alto students on campuses

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."


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7 people like this
Posted by Barron Park Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 8:37 am

I know Mike Jacobs from Barron Park. His son used to attend our school and is friends with my son. What he’s doing with Safeguard OES is noteworthy.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 8:58 am

I would like to thank PAPD and also Palo Alto online for alerting us (the community) so well to what was going on. I was at an event where parents were getting calls from kids, so it was good to be able to find out accurate information rather than depending on rumor.

I am reminded of a similar event a couple of years ago and the contrast is amazing. There was a similar sort of police activity taking place at the Challenger School one afternoon. A posse of police cars came from various directions and stopped traffic on Middlefield. There was no call to the community to stay away from the area, no police redirecting traffic, and nothing could be found online. I returned home and during the evening looked Palo Alto online and apart from people asking and guessing, there was no mention of it. Even the following day, Palo Alto online had no coverage.

It is good to see that both PAPD and PA online learned that the community has to be told. Yesterday there was understandably concern, but very little confusion and rumor mongering. Even those who were at T & C seemed to be very calm. This was a very different reaction to what happened that previous time as I was leaving Piazzas.

Thank you for getting the information out to those of us who are not in the parent information loop.

28 people like this
Posted by Josh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 10:17 am

We need an armed person in all our schools. Not teachers, but people that have experience in law enforcement. Society has changed and it’s not the gun. This insanity with mass shootings never happen when I was growing up. I’m 59. You’re not going to get rid of guns, just like you can’t get rid of drugs. Stop blaming the gun (example: the AR-15 has been for sale in the US since 1964) and start looking at mental health and social media.

53 people like this
Posted by Long Time in Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2018 at 10:29 am

Long Time in Midtown is a registered user.

@Josh. Your comment was right out of the NRA talking points playbook.

11 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 30, 2018 at 11:02 am

Not all Paly classrooms have phones or speakers for emergency announcements. This safety oversight should have been corrected years ago, as there have been classroom incidents in which some help would have been appreciated.

Unfortunately, in many classrooms, there's only a button to push which rings somewhere & summons a security guard who eventually shows up in a golf cart with no advance knowledge of the situation. It takes 5+ minutes for the guard to arrive.

As a parent of a PAHS teacher, this disturbs me.

6 people like this
Posted by Josh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 11:11 am

Never been a member of the NRA, never will be.

19 people like this
Posted by fact checker
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 11:47 am

>>>Never been a member of the NRA, never will be.

I don't believe you were accused of such (odd: few Americans really are members of the NRA - far, farr less than number of Costco members, for example.)

I see the comment you replied to was about your parroting an NRA (the gun manufacturers lobbyist) talking point/falsehood: more guns magically equals more safety. More guns mean more gun deaths. Period.

>>>start looking at mental health and social media

Alas, mental health budgets have been slashed for decades, starting with Reagan. Next talking point?

4 people like this
Posted by Curious Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 11:54 am

@Barron Park Parent. I have to agree. From what I saw on an ABC news report this week the system can work with smartwatches. If that’s the case, maybe it will work for our students while they’re off campus practicing for sporting events.

13 people like this
Posted by Josh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 12:38 pm

@fact checker. I did not say more guns. I stated that we need armed experience people in our schools. Of course I expected this type of backlash from most Palo Alto people when I posted. Relieved that my children no longer attend the public schools.

13 people like this
Posted by fact checker
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 12:59 pm

@josh: private schools all the way through, thank you.

More guns in schools? Yet in the last few weeks:

- Investigation continues in Monterey County high school teacher’s shooting of gun in classroom Web Link

- School Resource Officer Accidentally Fires Gun Inside School Web Link

- Deputy accidentally shoots himself at North Broward Preparatory School Web Link

- Third-grader pulls trigger on Maplewood cop’s gun, firing a shot Web Link

- Georgia teacher who fired gun in classroom had previous, bizarre run-ins with police Web Link

There is a limitation on number of links per post, but a quick google search will give many more examples.

5 people like this
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of University South
on Mar 30, 2018 at 1:43 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

12 people like this
Posted by bike commuter
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 30, 2018 at 2:17 pm


No, you are not the only one. I came from a country that has mandatory military service, where we learned to operate real firearms with live ammo. The government even made sure you received the training once every few years after discharge. Don't hastily associate firearm awareness with NRA.

15 people like this
Posted by Sanctimonious City
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 2:37 pm

Sanctimonious City is a registered user.

If you are interested in understanding the penetrating power of firearms, please watch the following side-by-side comparison of the types of bullets commonly used in an AR-15, a sporting shotgun and a pistol.

Web Link

It is hard to look at considering the topic. All of them penetrated at least 14 layers of drywall plus air space! Think about that for a moment and keep it in perspective.

Sheltering in unprotected rooms until a response team can arrive is not a good strategy. Updated tactics suggest that victims need to scatter while exiting the premises and an immediate counter attack needs to be mounted against the shooter to interfere with the rampage.

At a minimum, we should all insist that the school district spend the money to harden the rooms and provide mass escape routes. We can clearly see from the video that grouping defenseless people in unprotected spaces only makes it easier to hurt more people more rapidly.

Further, if one truly cares about survivability of the victims, there is a strong tactical argument to hire on-site guards to suppress or neutralize the attacker(s) while the students flee.

If PAUSD can afford to change school names it can afford to upgrade its facilities and protect our children.

7 people like this
Posted by Josh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 2:57 pm

Sanctimonious City,
I agree 100%.

7 people like this
Posted by PA Parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 3:32 pm

Various private schools in our region have researched whether or not having an armed presence on campus increases safety. There is not a straightforward answer to this question, and the devil is in the details. In addition to the cost (substantially higher due to the need to hire a very trained person or persons), there are lots of small questions like what happens when she or he needs a break, is sick, takes a vacation etc.? More importantly, armed guards must be integrated into the school's overall security procedure, must be known to and train with the staff during drills, must be in the right place at the right time if a shooter actually comes to school (more difficult with an open campus) and so on. There are good arguments that the bigger risks to safety are from an earthquake and since funds are not unlimited, increasing earthquake preparations would be a better use of money. Others believe that technology enhancements like alarm buttons, lock-down doors, sensors to track movement etc. are more effective in the event of an active shooter scenario. Overall, therefore, while it's understandable to wonder whether an armed presence would enhance safety -- regardless of one's views on gun control -- a hard look at data and an implementation plan will show that a guard with a gun is not necessarily an improvement over the current situation.

12 people like this
Posted by Charlene
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2018 at 3:33 pm

The biggest challenge with these types of scenarios is the communication process. We don't need to arm teachers with guns, we need to arm them with the ability to communicate effectively in a school crisis. Response time is everything, especially in a situation that is generally over within 7 to 8 minutes.

Any police officer who has been involved in an active shooting can tell you that firing accurately in a stressful situation is extremely hard. To make it worse, emergency responders don't necessarily know where the shooter is or how many there are. Once law enforcement arrives, they arrive with both hands on their gun. Medical responders are also looking to help those that are injured. That's why it's so important to get them the information they need before they get there. SafeGuard OES, a local Palo Alto company is working on just that. Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm

One of the very important things to remember is that in a crisis, the police will automatically see everyone who is not in uniform with a gun as a bad guy and a potential target. It is also very easy for the bad guy to put down the gun turn the corner and blend in with the escaping, scared population.

In Vegas, the band managers had guns but were afraid to get them out knowing the police would see them, shoot first and ask questions later. Even if the managers had decided to use their guns, they had no better idea that the police who the bad guys were.

In Parkland, the killer dropped his gun and escaped with the school population. He looked just like everyone else.

The problem with guns is that apart from the armed, uniformed police, nobody else can tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Barron Park

on Mar 30, 2018 at 4:18 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

13 people like this
Posted by Sanctimonious City
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2018 at 5:45 pm

Sanctimonious City is a registered user.

It is fundamentally not true that it is better to be unarmed vs. armed when attacked. If we extend that reverse logic to the premise that it is better to have an armed presence farther away rather than closer, then we should place the new police station in Tracy.

Organized violence has been studied for thousands of years and it is commonly known that the best possible response is to get offensive energy directed onto the attacker as fast as possible.

The police force can't say that around here because of emotional and political biases of their constituents. So I will. Locating an armed guard on campus is better for the following reasons:

1. Sophisticated attackers use diversions, impediments and preemptive strikes to prevent reaction forces from getting to the site of the main attack.

2. Sometimes the external reaction force delays confronting the attacker. The first team that arrived at Parkland waited (confusion, protocol, cowardice?) and the second team was sidetracked by out of date video information.

3. If you watch the YouTube link I posted earlier then you know how destructive the weapons are. Every minute counts. At a minimum, it will take a few minutes to travel to campus. A few mins more to get oriented and the team organized. Then lastly a few more mins to find and engage the attacker. Sadly, we know what the death toll will be like with that process even when things go perfectly. The average duration of a school shooting is 10-15 mins.

We already have armed guards at airports, banks, museums, concerts, sporting events and even the ER at Stanford Hospital. Basically, anywhere people congregate or has something of high value.

Surprisingly in Palo Alto that means anyplace but schools.

16 people like this
Posted by Charlene
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2018 at 6:52 pm

@Sanctimonious City. Yes, I believe having a strong SRO presence on campus is smart!

1. This is true. According to the Safe Schools Initiative, research conducted by the Secret Service and the Department of Education, school shooters don’t plan their attacks overnight. They’re usually connected with the campus in some way. They know your class schedules, and they know which rooms are occupied. And so just locking your doors, turning off your lights, and acting like no one is home isn’t enough. Once students are secure, we need to provide the information needed by first responders to focus their efforts where it’s needed most.

2. This is true. Sometimes our heroes hesitate. It’s important to note that they want to go home to their families too. I’m sure that some hesitation may be related to running in blind. In other words,”where’s the shooter, and how many are there?” We need to provide our first responders with clear and concise information for better risk informed decisions to be made. No one can offer them that better than the boots on the ground teachers in the middle of it all. That’s why improving our communication process is so important.

3. This is true. Finding and engaging the attacker takes time. Again, this is why we need to provide our first responders with the information they need. And of course the process is so much faster when you have SRO heroes already there. Please view this link for more information about communication processes. Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 31, 2018 at 8:12 am

There will be armed individuals in all Palo Alto schools. It’s just a matter of time.

2 people like this
Posted by Any security cameras?
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 1, 2018 at 6:10 am

Are there any security cameras at the schools to discourage and identify potential intruders? Even most terrorists want to get away - at least to kill another day.

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