Reality means teachers now must decide what would be the safest place in their classrooms if gunshots are heard in the corridors or outside the windows. Older students now must learn to "run, hide and fight"; arm themselves with chairs or fire extinguishers; lock doors equipped with "Columbine locks" that lock from the inside or out; and huddle quietly away from windows and doors.
In recent months, two local schools have had to put those lockdown drills into action: Woodside Elementary School on Oct. 26 and Menlo-Atherton High School on April 4. Both cases turned out, to the relief of all involved, to be false alarms.
Reality also means emergency responders now must practice what to do if what once was unthinkable happens — a shooter comes to a school campus.
Campus shooter drill
On Monday, April 9, with students off on their spring break, Atherton Police Department officers and Menlo Park Fire Protection District firefighters met on the Menlo School campus in Atherton to practice together what they would do if a shooter intruded on the grounds of a local school.
The issue is especially important to the two agencies because they have so many schools within their boundaries. Atherton has nine schools: 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.
Menlo Park Fire Protection District officials says the district has 30 public and private elementary, middle and high schools within their boundaries, with more planned.
This is also reality: Firefighters, who in the Menlo Park district are also all emergency medical personnel, now need to know what to do if they're shot at, and police officers need to know how to protect them.
Local elected officials, school officials, Facebook security personnel and The Almanac were allowed to observe part of the April 9 drill. The scenario on the Menlo campus was conceived mainly to practice two things: how armed police would escort medics into what they call a "warm" zone, where injured people need attention but a shooter may still be active or hasn't yet been apprehended; and how police would search a campus, approach classroom doors, and deal with suspects.
During the session allowing observers, police and firefighters were in uniform but using only brightly colored plastic replica weapons. For the drill, to eliminate the possibility of accidental shootings, real weapons were stashed away.
Medics train for 'warm' zones
Menlo fire district Battalion Chief Dan Coyle said that earlier mass shooting incidents, including the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting in 2012, convinced medics that waiting for a scene to be cleared could mean lost lives.
"Now, it is becoming standardized training" for medics to go into a "warm" zone, Battalion Chief Coyle said. "We're no longer going to sit two blocks away and let someone bleed out."
Later in the day, with the civilian observers safely off campus, the firefighters and officers donned body armor and helmets for a more realistic scenario using simulated gunfire and nonlethal ammunition.
A total of 48 people took part in the training: 19 police officers, 16 firefighters, five dispatchers, six youth fire explorers and two civilian police staff members, Atherton Police Cmdr. Joe Wade said.
Menlo fire district Chief Harold Schapelhouman said fire personnel wearing body armor such as bulletproof vests and helmets is not new. District responders have done so for nearly 30 years, "based upon the number of violent incidents we were experiencing in East Palo Alto in the 1980s," he said. Whether firefighters wear the protective gear depends on the "type of emergency in which enhanced threat protection could be needed," Chief Schapelhouman said.
In the 1980s, firefighters got much of their training on the job, he said. With daily responses to "shootings, stabbings, assaults and overdoses, ... it was a much different time."
The chief said that in its busiest year, the East Palo Alto fire station responded to more than 500 shootings. In response, "I wrote the first body armor purchase proposal, which started our current program," he said.
The fire district also now has "tactical medics" specially trained to work with the county's Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT). They drill and respond with the SWAT squads, the chief said, and also train other firefighters.
The district now has four tactical medics, with two more scheduled to receive the training. Chief Schapelhouman said the district's goal is to eventually have two tactical medics on each of the district's three scheduled work shifts. More than 50 district medics are trained to respond to active shooters, he said.
"We regularly practice mass casualty exercises at our training center, including these types of scenarios," Chief Schapelhouman said.
Atherton's Cmdr. Wade said the April 9 drill had been planned for at least eight months. "There were events that have just slowly changed the way we respond to these type of incidents," he said. "We've always focused on the active shooter aspect," he said, but "wanted to be sure ... that if we're going to have to rescue people that we have practiced it."
The drill, he said, was an opportunity "to really test the training."
"We learned that you definitely need practice when you're putting into place a brand new tactic," Cmdr. Wade said.
Lockdown lessons learned
Cmdr. Wade said the lockdown at Menlo-Atherton High School also taught the police department and the school some valuable lessons. One, he said, came from the unexpected arrival of 50 to 75 parents, despite the school's quick messaging asking parents to stay away from campus.
"We saw the power of how quickly word gets out via social media," he said. "There were parents that arrived much more quickly than I anticipated."
Parents need to be told, he said, that "sometimes the best response is not to come to the school."
Why? "They actually hinder the process when they show up in such large numbers," he said, and may distract emergency personnel from the job they need to be doing.
"Believe me, we want to deliver their kids back to them safely," he said.
If there had been a shooter at the school, he said, those parents may have been in danger. "We'd hate for a parent or a loved one to be caught in a field of fire."
The police department also received hundreds of calls from parents asking about the status of their children. Police didn't know those answers, Atherton Police Chief Steve McCulley said, but they do believe students are safe in a lockdown because they are following procedures they have learned through practice. A school "really is a safe place to be," he said.
How M-A prepared
Menlo-Atherton Principal Simone Rick-Kennel said the school had two lockdown drills this year, and the April 4 lockdown proved "we've trained people well." The school trains two "safety ambassadors" in each third-period homeroom class, and those students in turn train their classmates, Ms. Rick-Kennel said.
The school, like all other public schools in San Mateo County, follows the county's emergency "Big Five" plan. The plan has guidelines for an escalating series of emergencies ranging from a shelter-in-place protocol for events such as the extremely poor air quality during the height of the North Bay fires to a lockdown, when an immediate threat may be present. The plan also includes an evacuation protocol for situations such as a structure fire that makes it more dangerous for students to remain on the school grounds than to leave.
In addition to the lockdown drills, M-A High has also had two evacuation drills and two earthquake drills this year. Every classroom has an emergency backpack and an emergency binder, with the protocols also available electronically, Ms. Rick-Kennel said.
"Students take it way more seriously when we practice," she said.
The lockdown did show some areas that could use improvement, she said, including the fact that some students left the classrooms during the two-hour lockdown to use the restroom. The emergency backpacks have supplies — including blankets, toilet paper, and bags for waste — to allow students to stay in the classrooms in such a situation, she said. "Everyone was so nervous, they forgot about it," she said.
Staff members have also asked for more hands-on, rather than written, training.
And while the school's messaging system worked well, Ms. Rick-Kennel said, the school needs to set up an off-site location where parents could gather to avoid the situation where so many parents showed up despite being asked to stay away.
After the lockdown, she said, the school offered counseling support if students wanted to talk about the experience.
"The kids handled it well," she said. Teachers said they were proud of how students reacted, and parents told the school "my student felt safe," she said.
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