In response to the two student arrests last month for bringing loaded guns on campus, the PTA organized a forum on Tuesday evening to answer questions from the community regarding the incidents and the school’s response. Parents, teachers, and community members completely filled the M-A PAC Cafe and submitted a range of questions to the speakers, expressing concerns about campus safety, disciplinary action, and possible security measures for the school going forward.
Panelists included M-A Principal Karl Losekoot, members of the San Mateo District Attorney’s Office, M-A PTA Co-Presidents John Donald and Paige Winikoff, and officers from the Atherton, Menlo Park, and East Palo Alto police departments.
Losekoot began, “It’s nice to see our community come together in an effort to support the safe environment here at M-A. Having a loaded gun found on campus, let alone two, is unnerving, unsettling, and even scary.”
On weapons cases from high school in Atherton, Dan Larsen, Commander of the Atherton Police Department (APD), said, “We have had three other incidents, or five total, in the last five years. Of the other incidents, two of them were for replica firearms: one was a rubber firearm that had no function and the other was an airsoft pistol. The third weapon charge was a student with brass knuckles.” Having two loaded firearms on campus within a month was certainly unusual.
Losekoot said, “Immediately, we’ve asked and Atherton has obliged to have increased police presence on campus.” However, APD Chief Steven McCulley added, “We can’t sustain that, so eventually we’ll go back to our limited presence.”
As such, the school is exploring new measures to increase security. Losekoot said, “We at M-A are looking to hire a sixth campus aide for the second semester, to add to the supervisory staff on campus. The campus aides are on the front line providing both support and interaction for students.” Losekoot explained that it was a campus aide who had found the second weapon thanks to their diligent supervision.
He continued, “M-A is also discussing whether increased SRO (School Resource Officer) presence is needed or helpful. I think we have a fantastic relationship with our current SRO, Officer [Demetri] Andruha. We’re very thankful for him, but it’s also a challenge. SROs create a sense of safety, but we also know that for some students and portions of our community, police officers don’t actually create a sense of safety, but a sense of threat.”
McCulley said, “We don’t want to overwhelm students. We don’t want you to think that you’re going to school in a prison.”
Losekoot similarly addressed other suggested measures to prevent weapons from reaching campus. He said, “We get requests for things like metal detectors, wanding students intermittently, and having six or ten police officers on campus or at every entrance. Let’s first talk about the practicality of that. You have to create one or two entrances where everybody comes in: you’ll probably have to build a very large fence around the school, and you’re going to man those metal detectors every morning. The question is, is that the school you want your students to attend? That’s not the feeling of community, connectivity, and positivity that we want them to exist in.”
Losekoot repeatedly emphasized that the school needs to increase messaging to students on how they themselves can keep campus safe. He said, “We clearly have to do more messaging around not bringing dangerous objects to school. But we also want to do more messaging around how to create a safe space. How do we create the environment and send the message that here at M-A you are safe, and all students need to feel safe?” Losekoot maintained that students can and should tell the office or a trusted adult if they learn of or suspect a threat to campus. He also shared that M-A has been thinking about creating a text line or QR code survey for students to report possible threats.
As for the penalties to the two students involved in the recent incidents, Losekoot explained, “When a student brings a weapon such as a gun on campus, they are recommended for expulsion provided that there’s evidence to connect the individual to the handgun. The two students are no longer allowed on campus during the expulsion process.”
Rebecca Baum, the San Mateo County Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes juvenile county court cases, explained, “My understanding of the law as it stands right now is that the maximum penalty the students could face is two years in custody.” However, she added, “The trend in juvenile law is not custody time.”
In response to a question about when schools need to notify parents about gun incidents on campus, Claire Cunningham, from the San Mateo County Attorney’s Office, said, “It is not a legal requirement to provide notification under those circumstances.” However, Losekoot said, “That’s not how we’re going to operate here. We are going to tell the community. We’re going to be transparent about what’s happening in school.” Administration sent messages to parents informing them of both incidents within a day, and sent a similar message to students only after the second incident.
M-A librarian Catherine Burton-Tillson, who attended the forum, said, “Communication between the administration and the staff is super difficult. You need to make your staff feel comfortable and safe without giving up the actual legal rights of students, which is super complex.”
Both Losekoot and the police officers emphasized the close relationship between the school and the police departments. Losekoot said that during criminal incidents on campus, “We very quickly call the police; we have a great relationship with them, and they’re very responsive. As soon as they enter the scene, they take it over, and the student really becomes their custody.”
McCulley said, “We train routinely with the schools on the active shooter process, which would be happening in the event of a shooter. In addition to the officers I might have on duty, I start asking for assistance from other police departments and coordinating those resources and a response plan.” He continued, “At the same time, from the training we’ve been doing with the schools, they’re doing a lockdown internally. They know what our police practices are going to be in general, and then we start working in concert, with a lot of moving parts.”
Commander of East Palo Alto Police Department Jeff Liu said, “We all monitor each other’s radios very closely. If any of our schools is going through an active shooter or threat on campus, we’re sending in everybody we can in; they don’t even have to ask.”
When asked about the motives of the students who brought weapons to school, Larsen said, “It’s truly hard to say, because there’s a lot of questions that we’re unable to ask once the juvenile is in custody. It does not appear that this was going to be any kind of mass casualty incident. We believe the students were carrying the firearms for their own personal protection, not to use it on anyone at the campus.”
Losekoot added, “There’s definitely no evidence or sign that either of the students were in conflict with anybody on campus,” or that their actions were motivated by relations to gangs or drug sales, as some community members speculated in their questions. He furthered, “I would not characterize our student body or campus as being a hotbed of drug sales. I don’t think that’s accurate.”
Larsen reported, “Regarding drug sales cases at M-A, we have not had one yet this year,” eliciting applause from the audience.
While the students’ motives remain unclear, speakers emphasized that isolation is known to be a major factor behind school gun threats. Applause also followed Cunningham after she said, “What the research really shows is incredibly effective at reducing the possibility of violence on campus is connecting with kids. It’s not about turning schools into fortresses. It’s about reaching kids and making sure they have a trusted adult in their life.”
Burton-Tillson agreed, “It does come back to community. The average profile of a school shooter is someone who is isolated and not connected to others.”
After the forum concluded, Donald reflected on the role of the PTA in this situation, stating, “When we have an issue like this that parents, teachers, and students are very concerned about, we felt that it was appropriate for the PTA to provide this type of forum so people can ask the questions that they have and get answers from both law enforcement and the administration.”
These conversations aren’t isolated to M-A. Larsen said, “In one of our stakeholders’ meetings, we talked about making some of the changes we were looking at not directly at M-A, but instead making them throughout the District. That way it doesn’t seem like one school is being targeted, especially if it is a good idea that helps the safety of all campuses. I think it would be great to figure something like that out and implement it across the board.”