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Atherton holds school shooter forum for school officials

Drills, plans and sharing information all important, police say

Atherton School Resource Officer David Gomez (center, rear) talks to representatives of most of the nine schools in the town and Atherton City Council members at a May 8 live shooter forum in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Jennings Pavilion. (Photo by Natalia Nazarova/The Almanac)

With recent local and national incidents fresh in their minds, representatives from most of the nine schools in Atherton got together with members of the Atherton Police Department and other town officials on Tuesday, May 8, to talk about how police would respond to a school shooting.

"Our world is and can be a suddenly violent place," Officer David Gomez told the group of nearly two dozen who attended the school shooter forum. It was one of the meetings the Atherton Police Department holds once or twice a year for officials from the schools within its jurisdiction to promote information-sharing and cooperation.

Gomez, who is Atherton's school resource officer, said the fact that local police might have to respond to such an incident has "always been something that's weighed heavily on my heart."

In such an incident, he said, "The ultimate goal is to make sure everyone gets to go home."

Atherton has a population of about 7,200, but when schools are in session, the town has more than 8,000 students at the nine schools within its boundaries: elementary schools Laurel Lower Campus, Encinal, Las Lomitas and Selby Lane; Sacred Heart (preschool to grade 12); high schools Menlo and Menlo-Atherton; Menlo College; and the Knox Playschool.

"Your children are very important to us," Gomez said.

And in a world that changed in 1999 with the Columbine High School mass shooting, police and school officials must be prepared to respond to such incidents, he said.

Gomez told school officials they can do several things to help the police, including:

• Conduct active shooter, lockdown, fire and bomb threat drills at least once a year. Hold debriefings that include students after drills to discuss lessons learned.

• Provide police and fire with up-to-date maps of schools. Gomez says he keeps the maps on his phone for easy instant access.

• Have an alternative communication system for school employees, such as walkie-talkies, in case cell phones can't be used.

• Give employees contact lists for classrooms and offices.

• Have a public address system that can be heard inside and outside classrooms.

• Have emergency supplies inside classrooms (including emergency toilets).

• Allow law enforcement to hold drills on campuses.

A representative from one of the schools also recommended a phone app called Share911 that allows employees to instantly contact each other in an emergency.

School officials in attendance said they'd like to improve some things, such as information-sharing in an emergency. Linda Creigton, Laurel School's principal, said the lower campus is only a few hundred yards from Menlo-Atherton High School. They only learned of the recent lockdown, however, when students at Menlo-Atherton started texting their parents who work at Laurel.

Police Commander Joe Wade said the department is looking at software that might help improve communication. The issue is vital, he said, to help keep Atherton's police dispatchers from being overwhelmed with calls during an emergency.

"We want you to be able to deploy where you need to deploy," said Creighton. If they can figure out how to get good information to school parents, they could take the pressure off the police dispatchers, she said.

Atherton Detective Jason Bollendorf shared some of his recent firsthand experiences with the group. In the span of less than a week, starting on April 3, Bollendorf responded to the shooting at the YouTube campus in San Bruno, then a campus lockdown at Menlo-Atherton High the following day. He then helped design an April 9 joint active shooter drill for the Atherton Police Department and Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

The response to the YouTube shooting -- in which a young woman shot and wounded three YouTube employees before dying by suicide -- showed how local agencies would respond to a shooting incident at a school or business, he said. At least one representative of every agency in the county arrived on the scene very quickly, he said. Soon after, representatives of "every three-letter agency" in the federal government also showed up, Bollendorf said.

"Eventually everybody's going to be there" in such an incident, he said. He and other officers checked buildings near the YouTube campus, he said, as well as at YouTube.

Bollendorf said one lesson learned at that incident was "the persons with the keys" to buildings and offices are critically important to gaining access. "Those people with the keys have to make themselves available to law enforcement," he said.

Sometimes those who are barricaded in classrooms or offices won't open doors to police, because they are not sure who is really at the door, he said, making it necessary to use keys to open doors.

Knowing where surveillance monitoring is and can be viewed is also critical, he said.

School officials also need to make sure that they have multiple contacts with access to keys and surveillance systems, he said.

The Menlo-Atherton incident -- in which the campus was locked down for two and a half hours after someone noticed a recently-expelled student had posted a picture of himself holding a firearm in a bathroom that looked like some on the campus -- also taught some lessons. "Very rarely," Bollendorf said, is an incident "exactly the way it's called in to us."

"We have to use our training and experience to try to figure out what is going on," he said. In the M-A incident, he said it took nearly 50 person-hours of police work to figure out the selfie was about three weeks old and not taken on the campus, and to locate the juvenile who had posted it.

One thing school employees can do is to think about exactly how they'd respond to incidents they see on television or read about in the news, he said. They can ask themselves: "What am I going to do in that situation?" he said.

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• See related story: Practicing for the unthinkable: Menlo fire and Atherton police hold active shooter drill

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