Fairlands Elementary School teachers and parents criticized the Pleasanton Police Department last week for not adequately responding to a call reporting a person jumping the school's fence one night in October, which precipitated Fairlands locking down the next morning after that intruder was found sleeping in a storage room on campus.
Over a dozen people voiced their concerns directed toward the PPD during the special school board session held in the Fairlands multipurpose room on Nov. 6, which was put together after parents previously packed the Oct. 12 board meeting asking for more accountability at the top.
"I am disappointed in the Pleasanton police, they dropped the ball so many times," Megan Fernandez, a kindergarten teacher at Fairlands, said during the Nov. 6 meeting.
On Oct. 6, Fairlands students and staff experienced a lockdown after a teacher found 32-year-old Rhodney Henderson, a transient out of Berkeley, sleeping in a storage area on the second floor of the school, according to authorities.
According to Pleasanton Unified School District deputy superintendent Ed Diolazo's presentation on Nov. 6, school staff had initially noticed there was some Halloween candy missing from the teacher lounge and that three large garbage bags of donated socks were also missing.
He said the teacher discovered Henderson while searching the storage areas on the second floor for the socks.
According to a probable cause declaration written by PPD Officer Mario Guillermo, the intruder was found wearing only his boxers and lying on a couch surrounded by open food and drinks. It was later discovered that he had concealed three knives -- which were from the teacher's lounge, according to Diolazo -- and a hammer underneath the pillow that he was sleeping on in the storage room.
According to the presentation, additional knives were discovered by a fifth grade teacher wrapped in a towel at the bottom of a sock drive box. Custodians cleaned and searched the area the next day and Fairlands principal Heidi Deeringhoff additionally went out to the school that weekend to do a thorough search for any other items but nothing else was found.
Henderson has been charged by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office with two felony counts: having weapons on school grounds and second-degree burglary. He has two prior convictions for second-degree robbery – in 2009 and 2011 – in Contra Costa County, according to prosecutors. He was scheduled to appear in court for a hearing this week.
During the beginning of the meeting on Nov. 6, Diolazo told the community and the school board members present that since the incident the district has installed a front-door buzzer system, which many parents said should be a priority during the Oct. 12 board meeting.
That includes an intercom camera and remote lock system, according to the presentation.
Amos Nugent -- director of adult and career education who also serves as a safety officer for the district -- went on to go over the comprehensive safety plan and safety procedures which he said Fairlands followed.
However, he did say that the incident showed that there were areas for improvement including more comprehensive training for staff, making sure staff go around the school periodically to ensure the doors are locked at all times, and developing more diverse drills so that students and staff aren't left to scramble if they happen to be out during recess or PE and don't have a classroom to go to during a lockdown.
But while district officials talked about the front-door buzzer and the areas of improvement regarding drill protocols, the focus of the night's discussion circled back to one main theme from speakers: Fairlands teachers and staff did everything they could to ensure the safety of their students and PPD did not by failing to thoroughly search the school the night before Henderson was discovered.
That sentiment was best encapsulated by Fernandez, who kicked off the public comment section of the meeting by addressing parents who have been critical of the school and how staff handled the situation.
She said that while no drill is ever going to prepare anyone for every single incident, she was confident in her training and the anger she has been seeing on social media and at recent public meetings is misplaced and is only hurting the school.
She said instead, people have to shift their focus on how PPD did not do their job the night before Henderson was found when a resident called 911 to report someone jumping the fence.
According to PPD officer Guillermo's report, PPD received a call on Oct. 5 that around 8:24 p.m. a person was seen jumping the fence near the Fairlands multipurpose room. It was later discovered that Henderson had indeed jumped the fence and walked into the school through a door that was left open by a custodian who was working that night.
During the meeting, it was brought up that the custodian -- who was not notified by PPD that the call was made -- had left the door open because it was hot and the air conditioning is usually turned off by the district.
Principal Deeringhoff also clarified that while custodians do conduct general sweeps of the school in the morning and in the evening, Henderson had jumped the fence and entered the school an hour after the custodian finished the evening sweep.
But what really set off many teachers and parents during the meeting was when Fairlands kindergarten teacher Shari Eastman had asked Police Chief David Swing -- who was present at the meeting and was answering any questions -- if the officers who responded to the initial Oct. 5 call did any type of sweep of the campus, which would have prevented the lockdown from even happening.
"Did you come on campus, peek through the fence ... because this could have been prevented," Eastman asked.
Swing told her and the group that the officers did not do a sweep that night and the three officers shone their spotlights through the fence and were at the school for about two to three minutes before determining that there wasn't anyone there.
"That's disappointing that three officers ... were here and within two or three minutes they left," Eastman added.
On Thursday, Swing responded to additional questions the Weekly had asked regarding the lack of follow through with the initial call and said that officers respond to each situation based on the circumstances presented.
"My expectation is that the initial responding officers should have taken more steps to investigate the report of a person jumping the fence on Thursday night," Swing told the Weekly.
Another question that came out of the community meeting was about communication between the police department and the district, specifically on why the district and the school were not notified of the 911 call the night before the lockdown and why PPD did not provide additional support after the arrest in sweeping the school for other potential weapons.
Swing took some time to apologize to Deeringhoff directly for not checking in with her after the incident.
"We are committed to enhancing our communication and being more proactive about communicating with all schools should a similar event occur in the future," Swing told the Weekly on Thursday. "While the City and district regularly communicate on issues of safety, we can also strengthen communication with private schools."
Carly Kennedy, a third grade teacher at John Green Elementary School in Dublin, also spoke out on how she thinks, as many others pointed out, that PPD needs to be more present in the district and must be familiar with all of the schools in town. She referenced how Dublin police are very active in the schools and regularly do walk-throughs and training at several schools, which is something that PPD should consider.
"The safety of our community, especially our children, is the top priority for the police department as it is for the city and district," Swing told the Weekly in a follow-up interview Nov. 9. "As a way to enhance safety around schools, officers will increase their presence at the school sites by regularly checking in with school staff and being present on campus. While it is not feasible for all officers to have direct knowledge about each school, all field personnel and dispatchers have immediate access to diagrams of each school site to aid in their response."
Overall, many parents did take the time to thank Fairlands staff and teachers for how they handled the situation and said that while it could have been worse, the incident must serve as a way for PPD to improve its protocols and communication with how it handles these types of cases that, hopefully, don't happen again.
"The vision of the Pleasanton Police Department is to always be a model of excellence. We fell short in this case; and that was tough to hear. As the chief I take ownership for how we do in meeting the community's and our own expectations," Swing told the Weekly. "I am proud that we are a learning organization and learn from our mistakes by discussing them with the team and the community. We have reinforced our expectations with police personnel and will always look for opportunities to strengthen trust with the Pleasanton community, starting with receiving feedback from the Fairlands community."