With the school year beginning today in the , keeping children safe is likely on the radar of most parents, especially in light of the recent mass shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado.
Schools have often been the site of attacks, both those committed by a student and those committed by perpetrators from the outside.
Besides the most notable incidents such as the Columbine High School Shooting in 1999 and the Virginia Tech Massacre in 2007, multiple school shootings and many more attempted shootings occur annually throughout the United States.
Bay Area institutions have been the victims of such attacks recently, such as the San Bruno Shooting at Skyline College Shooting in 2009 and the San Jose State Shooting in 2011. Hillsdale High School would have been the scene of a destructive pipe bomb explosion in 2009, had it not been stopped by the forceful actions of the principal and a guidance counselor.
The question becomes how can schools prevent shootings and mitigate their damage when they do occur.
To keep students safe, the 16 district schools each have their own safety plan that is reviewed and updated each year by the school's Site Council--consisting of parents and staff--and principal. The plan includes specific procedures to be followed in the event of a wide range of emergencies.
According to Alan Sarver, President of the , schools have been constantly improving security measures since the Columbine Shootings.
“Security is consistently on the radars of school communities everywhere,” Sarver said.
As a result, security cameras have been installed at schools throughout the Sequoia district, while communication measures with authorities are being better coordinated.
Every school in the Redwood City School District also has surveillance cameras.
The district also has many modes of communication to keep parents and staff informed. An automated phone system enables the district to call every phone number (home, work, cell, etc) on file for parents in a number of minutes.
Soon, the district will be able to offer cell phone texting capability. A Twitter account and Facebook pages are another outlet to keep social media adept parents, staff and community members informed in the case of any emergency.
Peninsula police departments regularly work together as part of a mutual aid package to be prepared for school shootings, according to Palo Alto Police Lieutenant Zach Perron, Head of the Palo Alto Police’s Investigations Unit.
“Due to the small size of peninsula cities, a school shooting can immediately overwhelm any individual city’s police,” said Perron.
Nonetheless, Peron added that due to regular drills and cooperation, local police forces should be able to effectively respond to any such incident.
“We’re confident we’re prepared for anything that happens at a school,” Peron said.
Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Maurice Ghysels stressed the importance of accounting for the whereabouts of everyone at school in the security process.
“We pay attention to visitors and we know who’s on campus,” said Ghysels.
Ghysels said that his office had worked closely with the Menlo Park Police Department on security plans for the New Hillview Middle School, scheduled to open Sept. 4.
“Safety must come first,” said Ghysels.
Both school leaders added that a system of codes is in place to warn students and teachers on campus about a suspicious incident. For security reasons, those codes were not revealed.
Though security measures can help to prevent or mitigate the damage of a shooting, the core of preventing such incidents may be by way of improved counseling services. A vast majority of perpetrators of school shootings have been those with serious psychological, mood and behavioral issues that experts speculate may have been prevented had they been addressed early on.
In that regard, Sarver said local schools have come up short.
California is last among all 50 states in terms of the ratio between students and counseling staff. Recent budget cuts have only worsened the situation.
“The school financing situation in California is extremely dangerous to our society,” said Sarver.
At the Sequoia Union District, each counselor handles 400 to 500 students, which according to Sarver, does not give them sufficient time to understand or address major student problems.
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