“It’s beyond unsettling, it’s terrifying”: At local high schools, the fear of gun violence looms

WOODSIDE – On the morning of Oct. 12, the SAT and PSAT exams began as usual at Woodside High School. Students sat hunched over their test booklets, filling in answer bubbles in hushed classrooms. All was quiet across the high school’s sprawling 30-acre campus.

Then the police cars arrived. The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office had received word that there was an active shooter on Woodside’s campus.

It was one of six calls made across the Bay Area that day reporting school shootings. All were hoaxes — part of a pattern of calls that have disrupted and frightened schools across the country this year. Between September 13 and October 21, 182 schools across 28 states were targeted, NPR reported. Most of the calls originated internationally. The phenomenon is known as “swatting” because of the aggressive law enforcement responses the calls are intended to provoke.

And at nearby Menlo-Atherton High School, the threat of gun violence has loomed large in recent weeks. Last month, two students were taken into police custody for bringing loaded guns to campus: one student on Nov. 10, and another on Nov. 29.

The threat of school shootings has left communities across the country on edge in the wake of the violence at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were killed in May. The police there have come under scrutiny for their long delay before entering the school to intervene. Meanwhile, recent mass shootings have come in rapid succession — at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., an L.G.B.T.Q. nightclub in Colorado Springs, and the University of Virginia, among others — eroding a sense of safety for many.

A parent of two current Menlo-Atherton high school students, who asked that her name not be used, said she was “very concerned” about the guns that were found at her children’s school. She was one of more than 100 people who attended a forum at Menlo-Atherton High School on Dec. 13, where local law enforcement and district leaders took questions about the school’s response to the incidents.

“Anytime you get an email like that, I would say it’s beyond unsettling, it’s terrifying,” she said.

She said that her children, a sophomore and a senior, were “really upset” by the two incidents of students bringing guns to school.

Students at Woodside High School were also shaken by the swatting incident, said Lisa Camera, who is in her thirty-fourth year of teaching English there.

“Some kids could look out a window and see that the police, armed police, were here. That’s scary,” she said.

Camera said that her Woodside classroom was one of the last to be checked by police officers, who came in with their guns drawn. Witnessing the armed police response was frightening to many students. “A lot of kids were pretty traumatized after that,” she said, adding that the high school’s counseling resources have been in high demand.

Both schools consider themselves fortunate that no violence occurred.

“It does not appear that this was going to be any kind of mass casualty incident,” Commander Dan Larsen, of the Atherton Police Department, said at the Dec. 13 forum.

“What we believe is that the students were carrying the firearms for their own personal protection, not to use it on anyone at the campus,” he added.

Schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, including Woodside and Menlo-Atherton, follow what’s called the Big Five safety protocol. Emergency responses, depending on the circumstances, include shelter in place; drop, cover, and hold on; secure campus; lockdown/barricade; and evacuation.

Menlo-Atherton’s principal, Karl Losekoot, said that both firearms were immediately apprehended, so there was no need for the school to enter lockdown.

At Woodside, the principal, Karen Van Putten, made an announcement over the PA system, interrupting the silence of test day. She told the school they did not believe there was cause for alarm, but law enforcement was on campus responding to a call. Woodside would go into lockdown, and standardized tests would continue.

Some teachers locked their classroom doors, drew the blinds, and proceeded with testing. Others barricaded their doors. Meanwhile, police began moving through the campus. Some simply knocked at the doors of classrooms to check that all was well; others entered classrooms with their guns drawn, which upset some students and faculty.

At the same time, Camera said she would rather see police respond than not.

“Yes, they were a little bit aggressive, and they were — instead of maybe pacifying, they panicked people, but they have a pretty intense and important job to do,” she said.

But she said she saw the incident as an opportunity to learn from their weaknesses and improve their safety procedures.

“All we can do is make sure that we have protocols here to ensure that our students are safe and feel safe,” Camera said.

“Thank God it was a false alarm, because I think about all these other schools — Uvalde is the one that just breaks my heart,” she added.

The deaths in Uvalde have been front-of-mind for many in light of recent shooting scares. At the forum at Menlo-Atherton, Chief Steven McCulley of the Atherton Police Department said that when and how police respond “has come up repeatedly since the shooting in Texas.”

“It’s important you understand — regardless of what you’ve seen across the country — our tactics are to move in immediately, whoever is on campus, including myself,” he assured parents.

Both Woodside and Menlo-Atherton are taking additional steps to ramp up their safety protocols.

Velschow said that Woodside staff will complete additional training in January for how to respond to an active shooter threat. They’ll run the safety drills without students present, since gun violence training can be especially troubling for some students.

Losekoot said students and staff will begin the new year with a safety assembly. Additionally, he plans to hire a sixth campus aide to assist with school safety. The school conducts two lockdown drills each year with students and staff.

Menlo-Atherton requested expanded police presence after the two incidents in November, but Losekoot said he wants to think holistically about the campus climate. Responses like installing metal detectors don’t strike him as practical or in line with the school culture he wants to foster.

“The first question tonight is, how do we make our campus safe and how do we help each of our students feel safe?” he said. But he emphasized the need for students to feel connected to an adult, a class, or an extracurricular activity.

“It is these positive connections that will ultimately be the bedrock and foundation of the safe community,” Losekoot said.

As they looked to the future and made plans to reinforce their safety protocols, members of both school communities said they were shaken by their brushes with gun violence.

“It’s scary. I mean, look at what’s happening across the nation,” Camera said. “You know, you would think, ‘Oh, that’s never going to happen to me,’ or ‘It’s never going to happen here.’ I don’t think we have that luxury to think that anymore.”

The mother of two Menlo-Atherton students voiced a similar sentiment. “I think most parents would say most days they’re trying not to think about the possibility,” she said. “But you’re aware when you send your kids off, like, I want to make sure I hugged them and kissed them and that they know they’re loved.”


  • Grace Doerfler

    Grace Doerfler grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and Africana studies from the University of Notre Dame, where she researched gender and Catholic clergy sexual abuse. Grace has written for Notre Dame’s student newspaper, the Observer, and interned for America Media. As a Stanford student, Grace looks forward to developing skills in multimedia storytelling. In her free time, Grace enjoys cooking, running and museums.

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