With the school year fast approaching, keeping children safe is likely on the radar of most parents, especially in the aftermath 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 shooting at Skyline College in 2009 and the San Jose State shooting in 2011.
San Mateo's 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 if they do occur.
Alan Sarver, President of the Sequoia Union School District, said schools have been constantly improving security measures since Columbine.
“Security is consistently on the radars of school communities everywhere,” Sarvar said.
Security cameras have been installed at schools throughout the Sequoia district, while communication measures with authorities are better coordinated.
San Mateo Police Sergeant Dennis Burns added that both the local and county authorities are in regular communication with schools on security measures and regularly prepare for such incidents.
According to Burns, many San Mateo schools have practiced evacuation plans with local SWAT teams.
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.”
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 September 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.
Though security measures can help to prevent or mitigate the damage of an attack, preventing such incidents via imporved counseling services may be the first line of defense.
A 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.
Because counselers are not in the classroom, they are not considered a priority.
One local school board member said that's dangerous thinking. Students need a safe place to go to unload, even if it's something as simple as a lost diary.
In the Sequoia Union District, counselors handle 400 to 500 students each, which does not give them sufficient time, according to Sarver, to understand or address major student problems.
In the event of a shooting, the best way for individuals to respond is to find a good hiding spot that is low to the ground, according to Kristin Quintana a Menlo Park martial arts instructor and self-defense expert.
“The bottom line is that people need to stay calm and stay low.”
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