When schools call police to campus, the police become instruments of the school rather than the other way around.
“We operate within the confines of their rules,” Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl said.
In the wake of an alleged bomb threat at Maricopa High School Sept. 23, school lockdowns were the theme of the monthly “Coffee with the Chief” gathering Saturday.
MPD had two school lockdowns that week. After the high school, Maricopa Elementary School shut down when a student reported seeing a suspicious person on campus.
Police response depends on the nature of the threat at a school. If it is a vague bomb threat, like that received by MHS, the school administration makes the decision whether to go into lockdown or evacuation mode.
In the MHS situation, the school did both. The administrators initially locked down the school and then later moved the students to the football field.
“As students we are not really told anything,” said Na-Talya James, a member of Maricopa’s Youth Council. “I need to know more. Like, what can I do? We ask the teachers and they can’t really tell us anything.”
Stahl said MPD could do more to prepare students.
“We teach the staff and rely on the staff to teach the students,” he said.
Whether it is a verified threat or a suspected threat, police come onto the campus at the request of the school and a lockdown is the school’s decision. “The school belongs to the school,” Stahl said.
School staff members are the best judge of what is unusual, he said.
“We don’t know what looks suspicious,” he said. “We don’t know the who, what or how. What we need to know is where to search.”
Police will walk the campus with a custodian or safety officer and use the school’s own safety rules to find the most vulnerable areas. “That way we are not wasting resources,” Stahl said.
Stahl said if a suspicious object like an unclaimed box or bag is found in the investigation of a bomb threat, everyone within at least 300 feet is evacuated.
Most lockdowns initiate within the school, but Stahl said there are occasionally situations in which MPD requests a campus to go into lockdown. In the past year that has occurred when law enforcement raided a drug house several blocks away from a school and when a potentially armed domestic-violence suspect was on the run through a neighborhood by a school.
Only two schools in the Maricopa Unified School District have surveillance cameras. “That is not sufficient,” Stahl said. He said it would be a big investigative help if all schools had cameras. He said it would help with campus safety and apprehension of suspects.