In the event of a school shooting, Palo Alto High School's English teachers worry that their classrooms are not sufficiently safe, with exposed doors and windows, a faulty intercom system and doors that don't lock from the inside. They are asking Principal Adam Paulson to take immediate action to address their concerns, captured in a formal Williams Complaint filed earlier this month.
"As teachers, we would rather spend our energy teaching the students—not worrying about how to quickly cover the windows of our classrooms or responding to yet another false fire alarm," the Paly English department wrote in a Sept. 11 letter to Paulson. "We are tired of waiting for safety improvements that needed to happen yesterday and would like immediate action taken to address our concerns."
Williams Complaints relate to instructional materials, emergency or urgent facilities conditions that pose a threat to the health and safety of students.
Paulson did not respond to a request for comment.
Shirley Tokheim, the English department's instructional leader, describes in the letter how the intercom in her classroom didn't work during an August lockdown drill, meaning she and her students didn't hear an announcement signaling it was time to barricade rooms across campus.
"Under the desk in the dark, I thought about the significance of what had just happened. Had it been an actual lockdown, with a shooter on campus, my students and I would not have heard the announcement and would have been wide open—doors open, lights on—for attack," she wrote. "All twenty-five of us might have already been dead."
Safety issues, particularly in Paly's 200 building and the new Media Arts Center, have been "ongoing for years," with teachers repeatedly asking for working intercoms and blinds to cover windows, the complaint states. Some teachers have made or brought their own curtains to cover classroom windows, according to the complaint.
Following a February lockdown training with the Palo Alto Police Department, the English department put together a list of safety requests, including installing dark curtains or roller shades in the 200 and Media Arts Center buildings; fixing intercoms and ensuring all rooms have working phones; installing door locks that can be locked from the inside; and ensuring all classrooms on campus have the same emergency bag system.
More safety issues surfaced after a shooting hoax that prompted a campus lockdown in March, when it "again became evident that our facilities fall short in providing a safe environment for staff and students," the teachers wrote.
In June, the school board allocated $111,399 for a contract to replace Paly's bell and speaker system.
The complaint also raises concerns about Paly's fire drill exit protocol, which hasn't changed as the school's population has grown over the years, the teachers note. They describe a walkway onto the football field, where the entire school gathers during a fire drill — including during false alarms, of which there were three in the first four weeks of school — as "the funnel of death."
Paly senior Caroline Furrier, the student representative to the school board, said at Tuesday's board meeting that there have been two false fire alarms this week alone.
Superintendent Don Austin said at the meeting that false fire alarms are a "front-burner issue" that the district and Paly administration are working to address.
"We believe that student conduct that puts students in danger through these series of false alarms Is completely unacceptable," Austin said.
In an email to the Weekly, Tokheim said there has been some changes in response to their complaint, including new blinds on doors, working intercoms and in the process of installing working phones.
"It seems the district has finally heard us and is taking our concerns seriously," she said.