District reviews safety policies after March 29 lockdown


Photo courtesy of Dylan Zou/Paly Voice

PAPD officers respond to threat at Paly on March 29.

The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) and the Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD) are working  together to revise and update emergency response policies in light of the March 29 lockdown at Palo Alto High School (Paly). The lockdown was initiated after a stolen phone was used to report a planned school shooting later deemed to be a hoax, according to PAPD.

The response to the incident has taken many different forms. On April 17, PAPD held a training exercise on the southwest corner of campus, according to Principal Kathleen Laurence. In addition, the police department is in the process of reviewing standard response procedures. “We always examine our policies and procedures after a significant incident like this as a way for us to identify ways we can improve,” PAPD Captain Zach Perron said. “We remain 100 percent committed to doing everything in our power to keep our students safe.”

The police department declined to detail the procedures, citing safety concerns. “We don’t publicly discuss our policies or tactics as they pertain to threats to our schools—the publication of such things could jeopardize our response to future incidents by potentially tipping off suspects to how we are likely to respond,” Perron said.

At the district level, there has also been a gradual shift in general safety policies. “We were already in the process of looking at our safety practices and procedures [this year],” Assistant Superintendent Yolanda Conaway said.

The first step has been for the district to increase readiness efforts under the PAUSD Emergency Preparedness Committee (PEPC). “[PEPC] is charged with looking at our practices for lockdown,” Conaway said. “We found that we needed to update some of our manuals to make sure that they’re aligned with current practices. We want to make sure our policies are directly aligned with what the research says works really well.”

PEPC has also began to revise the traditional model of “lockdown” beginning this year. “[The model] used to be everybody inside locked down, and what they’re saying now is ‘Run, Hide, Fight,’” Laurence said. “Students who are out on campus should run into [an open] room, if they’re out on the field, run off campus, [or] hide somewhere on campus. And then fight, if you really must fight. That’s the last resort.”

According to Conaway, “Run, Hide, Fight” was developed to give more power and options to an endangered individual. “We’re telling people that there are options,” she said. “It’s a tough call to make, because if you make that decision to stay put and hide 100 percent of the time, it may not always work out. But that’s a decision that has to be made in the context of the larger scope of things.”

Additionally, the district has remained committed to adapting safety policies to each school site within Palo Alto, many with disparate environments. “We also work with a group called Keenan & Associates and that group [does vulnerabilities assessments], and the purpose of these assessments is to see whether there’s any risk in the environment,” Conaway said. “[Keenan & Associates] will be walking through campus identifying those areas we need to do better about.”

Despite the increasing prevalence of both harmless and real threats to schools, both the district and PAPD agree that a well-functioning relationship between them is key to the safety of students and has enabled their response to be as fast as possible. “Our partnership with the police department is amazing,” Conaway said. “Without their help we couldn’t be as efficient, and I think they would say the same thing; our collaboration is what makes the process go quicker.”

Perron also echoed Conaway’s thoughts on the strong partnership. “We also have an outstanding relationship with PAUSD officials, including the staff members at all of our schools,” he said. “We routinely review lockdown procedures with staff, and have annual drills as well.”

According to PAPD, the March 29 caller has not yet been apprehended. “Our detectives are still investigating the case, and we remain confident we will be able to identify the suspect and arrest him,” Perron said.

Perron added that such calls are not harmless pranks, but rather hurtful and disturbing. “Hoax calls like this are not only criminal in nature, but they also create a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for students, parents, school staff and the larger community,” he said. “They are completely unacceptable.”

Even though the threat was unsubstantiable, junior Elizabeth Salwitz saw it as exemplifying the broader problems associated with gun control and emphasizing the need for political change. Salwitz, the organizer of Gunn’s #NeverAgain protest, strives to continue voicing her opinions. “I’m hoping to continue protesting with the rest of the country,” she said. “I think it is really powerful when many different cities participate in the same cause. This proved a lot of people’s points that this could happen anywhere, and that we need to take action to protect our students, such as making it harder for people to get their hands on an AR-15 [semi-automatic rifle].”

At the end of the day, Conaway hopes students can grasp the importance of concrete safety policies. “When you are faced with an incident, timing is everything,” she said. “How fast you respond is extremely important. I’ve learned that when people are prepared, they respond calmly and coolly and they make better decisions.”