‘We aren’t waiting to act’: San Jose parents take over school safety
SJUSD parent Trudi McCanna created the Why Wait Project to ensure research-based, best-practice approaches to school safety are put in place districtwide. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Parents in San Jose’s largest school district are stepping up to take responsibility for school safety, since they said administrators have taken a lackluster approach on the issue.

    Helmed by Trudi McCanna, San Jose Unified School District parents have formed a school safety group, the Why Wait Project, to ensure research-based, best-practice approaches to school safety are put in place districtwide—from lockdown drills to how to react to an active shooter on campus.

    “I believe we have a real problem in the San Jose Unified School District when it comes to safety,” McCanna told San José Spotlight. “After multiple firearm threats, parents saw our school district wasn’t as prepared as we thought. The district isn’t stepping up. We aren’t waiting to act.”

    On April 21, a Herbert Hoover Middle School student was caught carrying a loaded firearm and taken into police custody. On May 14, a Lincoln High School student made a threat on social media to bring an assault rifle to school and shoot classmates. He was arrested after attending school the following day. On May 17, police arrested a Willow Glen High School student who walked onto campus armed with a loaded ghost gun and knife.

    McCanna said the district places the responsibility on school councils to create safety plans without providing enough guidance. It’s the reason the Why Wait Project school safety template was developed, as an information tool to know what to do in an emergency.

    “The intent behind it is to give as much support to these school site councils as we possibly can, so that they have what they need in order to have plans in place,” she said. “We’re giving them resources and support.”

    McCanna said the group wants teachers and students to feel safe at school through effective prevention measures and know how to respond to incidents.

    Abraham Lincoln High School teacher Michelle Quarneri would like the district to provide instructions from mental health professionals on how to talk to students following traumatic school incidents. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    San Jose Unified School District spokesperson Jennifer Maddox doesn’t feel the Why Wait Project speaks for everybody.

    “It’s important to distinguish we have a group of parents behind this,” she told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think it’s a fair representation to say it’s all parents, at least that certainly has not been the impression that I have gotten.”

    Maddox said the district provides schools with templates for comprehensive safety plans, which school site councils are required by law to approve for compliance. She said school sites maintain their own emergency plans, which include details such as evacuation routes and meeting spots which are not released publicly. The district reviews these safety protocols at the beginning of the school year with its safety committee and shares feedback with school site councils.

    Lincoln High School English teacher Michelle Quarneri said teachers need a district-led overview with best practices during emergencies.

    “It puts a lot more stress and pressure on us to make sure we’re making the right choices for the safety of our students,” she told San José Spotlight, adding one safety training per year isn’t sufficient. “The more prepared we are, the better off we are.”

    She would like SJUSD to provide teachers with training from mental health professionals on how to talk to students following these events.

    “There’s a lot of unresolved trauma,” she said. “I don’t know that we did enough professionally to help those kids. We don’t know what to say. They need to make sure the kids know we understand what they went through, and it isn’t business as usual.”

    Parents take charge

    In June, McCanna and Abraham Lincoln High School English teacher Elizabeth Neely, along with 300 teachers, parents and residents, petitioned the school district to create a community task force, improve communication and assess safety equipment. District leaders agreed to assess and repair safety equipment and use the ParentSquare app for districtwide communication, but cautioned SJUSD wouldn’t send information before ensuring accuracy. The school board rejected the task force request in favor of each school relying on its own council taking on safety plan responsibilities.

    McCanna said the Why Wait Project will continue advocating for district accountability, including implementing a web and app-based anonymous reporting system staffed by mental health professionals. She said research shows the majority of school shooters tell another student first, helping to preempt a shooting. McCanna said the group may ask San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan to help apply for funding for the app if the district won’t.

    “The issue of firearms in schools can’t be solved by any one of us,” she said. “We all need to come together and take action.”

    Parent Tiffany Howard started advocating for better school safety plans following a S.W.A.T. team evacuating Lincoln High School after a false report of students being shot there in October.

    “They had police knocking on doors with guns drawn,” she told San José Spotlight. “There’s so little done in terms of mental wellness after these events… to collectively come together and talk about the trauma they experienced or what can be done next time.”

    Howard said with all the wake-up calls the school district has had, not doing more is unacceptable.

    “They’ve moved on from it,” she said. “We have not and are not going to let them drop it.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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