If an armed suspect walked onto a school campus in Mountain View prepared to open fire, would the city be ready?
That's the question that hung over a panel of school officials, police and mental health counselors during a town hall on school safety Wednesday evening. Panelists advocated for a careful balance of safety drills and security measures -- without traumatizing young kids in the process -- that could make school campuses safe havens for children. District officials also suggested they could look into metal detectors, fences, cameras and other means to safeguard kids.
The panel also emphasized the importance of preventative measures and weighed whether mental health counselors, school staff and parents could do more to prevent bullying and childhood isolation.
The Mountain View Whisman School District hosted the April 18 town hall in the wake of the February school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which has triggered local and national protests calling for greater gun control regulation. Some argued mental health was the root cause that must be addressed, while President Donald Trump floated the idea of arming teachers as a means to combat violence at school.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said school districts like Mountain View Whisman have an obligation to keep kids safe in the event of a shooting, and regularly train school staff for how to best respond to an active shooter on campus. The district follows a strategy developed by the Santa Clara County Police Officers Association called Run, hide, defend, which calls for evacuation as a first resort and fighting an active shooter who manages to break into a barricaded classroom.
The district's emergency response guide suggests that teachers "disrupt the intruder" by discharging a fire extinguisher at the shooter and "having students throw things." Students and staff are warned not to evacuate based on fire alarms or what they hear over the PA system, and to remain in lockdown until an officer enters the room.
But taking it a step further and preparing kids themselves for an active shooter through drills may not be the best approach, Rudolph said, particularly at elementary schools where children are as young as 5 years old. He said middle school students might want to go through some kind of training, and that district officials would consider it as an option.
"I sort of view it, unfortunately, as what we have to do for fire drills and earthquake preparedness," he said.
It's important to extensively train adults on campus, but that kind of preparation could prove harmful for many students, said Marsha Deslauriers, executive director of the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC). She said schools are going to have to strike a careful balance between the realities of school safety and the full range of students who would be affected.
"Some children actually do want to participate in a drill, and there are a whole lot of other children who are going to be triggered and traumatized by this," she said.
As far as safety upgrades, Rudolph said district officials have considered how much it would cost to install fences around school campuses, as well as automatic locks and security cameras. The district could also take the additional step of using metal detectors, similar to what some Southern California schools have done, as a means to stop or deter shooters. On the other hand, fences close off campuses to the public and could even create potentially dangerous bottlenecks at schools, he said.
No one on the panel had any appetite for arming teachers with guns. Mountain View Police Captain Jessica Nowaski described the suggestion as an emotional knee-jerk reaction that she could not personally or professionally support. She said teachers she has talked to are focused on education and have enough on their plate already, and asking them to carry firearms and all the training that would be required to go along with it would be burdensome and "incredibly distracting."
"The last thing that I would want to do is put that responsibility, that additional, very huge responsibility, on my childrens' teachers," she said.
The town hall largely focused on the role parents and school staff have in preventing and speaking out against bullying on and off campus, and creating a safe environment where children are comfortable talking about social problems at school instead of feeling increasingly isolated and upset. School Resource Officer Rodshetta Smith said parents and teachers ought to keep an eye out for indicators that something is off -- like sudden, unexpected truancy -- and that the Mountain View Police Department hosts presentations on school and online bullying for kids as young as third grade.
"Our students are good at reporting when they're starting to feel like something has gotten out of hand or gotten out of control," Smith said.
Deslauriers said safety on campus means adopting a culture of inclusion and acceptance, and said adults on campus need to identify bullying and other poor behavior at schools and identify it in a way that kids can understand.
"It's up to us as the adults to create the boundaries and the clear expectations about what we tolerate and what we don’t tolerate," she said.
School boards for all three districts serving Mountain View have approved resolutions condemning gun violence and calling for legislation aimed at curbing violence on school campuses. Mountain View-Los Altos High School District board members passed a resolution last month calling for mental health support, anti-bullying tactics and for lawmakers to "reduce the risk and severity of gun violence on school campuses and repeal the prohibition against data collection and research on gun violence."
Mountain View Whisman, as well as the Los Altos School District, passed resolutions with stronger language, calling for state and federal lawmakers to reinstate "the assault weapon ban" and adopt stricter controls for the sale and manufacturing of all firearms, dangerous weapons and ammunition. The resolutions also call for an outright ban on semi-automatic firearms, high-capacity magazines, armor-piercing ammunition and accessories like bump stocks that allow guns to fire at a near-automatic rate.
Rudolph told board members last month that he chose the resolution with the more "punchy" language, which he felt reflected the community's feelings about school shootings. The Los Altos School District's resolution also specifically called for the removal of the Dickey Amendment, which prevents the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to study gun violence and the potential of injury prevention through gun control measures.