Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 24, 2004

Sometimes it’s hard but best to stay away

The thing that stuck with me about The Dispatch’s coverage of the phoned-in shooting threats at Gilroy High School was Chief Photographer James Mohs’ photo of worried parents rushing to check on their students after a nearly three-hour lockdown was lifted. Some 60 parents arrived on campus as word of the lockdown spread via cell phones.

Maybe I have ice water running in my veins, but when I looked at the photo, I wondered why the parents were rushing to check on their kids. After all, if the lockdown had been lifted, surely they knew their teens were just fine.

Then, as I read the accompanying stories by Lori Stuenkel and Peter Crowley, I was able to articulate why the parents’ presence worried me – the Columbine High School tragedy. There, concerned parents who rushed to the school blocked emergency vehicles trying to respond to the 1999 shooting spree.

I debated with myself what my response would be if either of my kids – a seventh grader and a third grader – was in a similar situation. I admit that in the case of my younger child, my protective reflexes to rush to try to deliver comfort would be difficult to suppress. Besides, I can walk to that school and can see it from my front yard. But as children mature, they’re more and more able to deal with life’s stressful and frightening situations without reassurance from Mom and Dad.

I almost got a chance to find out how I’d react for real. My son attends Martin Murphy Middle School in South San Jose, where a bomb threat caused an evacuation of the school’s more than 900 seventh, eighth and ninth graders just three days after the Gilroy incident.

After a custodian discovered the written threat, students spent more than an hour on the school’s practice fields, having been told by school administrators that they were having a fire drill.

I didn’t find out about the bomb threat until I arrived to take my carpoolers home, so I can’t say with certainty what I would have done had I known, but I like to think I would have stayed away.

Perhaps because fewer middle schoolers than high schoolers have cell phones, perhaps because those students who had cell phones were likely separated from them during the evacuation, and perhaps because students on a practice field don’t have access to the Internet, television and radio news, word didn’t spread about the bomb threat. Martin Murphy officials say that no worried parents arrived on campus to check on their students.

That’s the way it should be.

Besides blocking access to the site for police, firefighters and ambulances, there are other good reasons for staying away from the scene. If the incident isn’t a hoax, and there really is a shooter or a bomb or some other danger, additional people on scene means additional potential victims and more work for all emergency personnel. How many parents can do a better job than police in locating a sniper or defusing a bomb? How many can give better emergency medical care than paramedics?

It’s a noble and instinctive response to want to be near our children when they’re afraid or in danger. But just like we can’t accompany our frightened kids into operating rooms, for example, parental hovering isn’t terribly helpful in these potentially dangerous threat situations.

Speaking of public safety professionals, here’s a hearty “Good job!” to the Morgan Hill, San Jose and Gilroy police departments. Morgan Hill officers did themselves proud when they showed remarkable restraint in the recent incident where teenagers swarmed a baseball practice at Jackson Elementary School toting replica weapons. The toy guns, with the distinctive orange barrel tips covered or removed, looked amazingly real. Thanks to an observant officer who realized that the guns were fakes, four boys lived to see another day, even though that day will likely involve juvenile justice officials.

San Jose police responded quickly to the bomb threat at Martin Murphy Middle School – “We had 11 or 12 officers here so fast you wouldn’t believe it,” Principal Rhoda Wolfskehl told reporter Marilyn Dubil – and presided over an orderly evacuation and thorough search of the school.

Gilroy police were on the Gilroy High campus within four minutes of receiving the shooting threat call and had the school locked down three minutes later. Not only that, they arrested three suspects later that afternoon.

Indeed, we’re lucky to have such well-trained, professional officers in South Valley. Here’s hoping we won’t need them at any of our schools again any time soon.

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