Safe at home?

Administration emphasizes new security measures and supportive campus culture after threatening graffiti incident disquieted Harker students and faculty


Anna Vazhaeparambil

Head of Security Tor Wormdahl and SJPD School Liaison Officer Sean Mattocks patrol the campus on Nov. 14.

by Eric Fang and Kathy Fang

As the upper school moves forward from a threatening graffiti message that disrupted school two weeks ago, administrators will maintain a heightened police presence on campus and continue discussing changes to the security system. 

According to Facilities Director Mike Bassoni, the school plans to add seven or eight security cameras at strategic points in the school’s walkways and install a more advanced camera capable of detecting license plates at the front gate by winter break. 

Currently, the school has 22 cameras around its perimeter that feed into artificial intelligence software. The San Jose Police Department has access to the live camera feeds and works closely with the upper school security team. 

“We listen to SJPD, we meet with them a lot and ask them, please assess us, tell us how we can improve. We are constantly making minor adjustments, [including] literally the pattern the security officers walk around the campus,” Bassoni said.

On Nov. 5, two students reported a threatening graffiti message in the downstairs Dobbins boys bathroom. The message contained song lyrics that reference “counting my bullets” and “loading my clips,” followed by the words “don’t come to school tomorrow,” prompting administrators to call an immediate all-school meeting that afternoon. 

Following SJPD’s evaluation, the school operated as normal on Nov. 6 and maintained a police presence to surveil campus, but about 50 percent of upper school students chose to stay home from school, leading to the readjustment of teachers’ class plans and the cancellation of various school events.

According to Upper School Division Head Butch Keller, police officers will remain on campus for an indefinite period of time, in addition to Harker’s usual security presence, which consists of three guards during the day and two in the evening, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

On Security Director Tor Wormdahl’s request, an SJPD officer has been patrolling the area within three miles of the upper school and can respond to on-campus threats within five minutes. SJPD first made this service available to schools after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. 

At an optional parent meeting on Nov. 12, upper school administrators and Officer Sean Mattocks, Harker’s SJPD liaison, listened to parents’ perspectives regarding campus security and answered questions about the school’s response.

“Philosophically, one of the things we talked about [at the parent meeting] was, do we want a resource officer on campus, a series of policemen who are always here with weapons and things like that?” Keller said. “It was just a thought experiment. Do you want guns on your campus, even if they’re attached to police? And, you know, I don’t. That’s not the community I want to be.”  

In addition to security measures, administrators are considering ways to encourage students to utilize the support of counselors, advisors and teachers when needed.

“If you’re hurting or in need, so many of us are so willing to listen and support you guys,” history teacher Roxana Pianko said. “We always tell you guys that we’re available, that our doors are always open. I wish sometimes you guys would take us more seriously about that.”

The school has opened investigations into the source of the graffiti, with the help of the San Jose Police Department and outside investigators, and administrators encourage students or parents with any information to speak with teachers, counselors or any other adults on campus.

“You guys are our eyes and ears. You see and hear things that we never do,” Bassoni said. “Virtually all of the terrible shootings that have taken place in the last 20 or 30 years, these people had no police record, they’ve never done anything wrong before.”

Similar threats and events are occurring almost daily at this point. Four days ago, a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, CA killed two students and injured three others, as of Thursday afternoon. Palo Alto High School experienced recent shooting threats when police chased a suspected bank robber through campus on Nov. 4. Iron Horse Middle School in San Ramon went into lockdown upon finding threatening bathroom graffiti on Nov. 7.

Along with these events, the graffiti at the upper school served for many students as an unsettling sign of gun violence hitting closer to home. 

“Up until now, I viewed Harker as a safe place, but it feels like I can’t do that anymore, and we can’t take comments like this lightly,” Nikki Solanki (12) said. “My best friend was at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school during the Parkland shooting, and I empathized with him, but I never really knew what that fear felt like.”

Regular school activities have resumed since Nov. 6. 

“While [the graffiti message] was unsettling, I feel like the community has done a really nice job of returning to routines in a productive way,” Head of School Brian Yager said. “We had a great end of the week, despite this hard middle of the week, and we’re going to continue to use this incident as a means of reflecting and getting better at everything we do.”

We had a great end of the week, despite this hard middle of the week, and we’re going to continue to use this incident as a means of reflecting and getting better at everything we do.”

— Brian Yager

In the long term, the administration’s primary goal is to foster a safe and nurturing environment that will prevent future threats from arising.  

“We want to continue to focus on having this community know each other and look out for each other and be safe, so that if somebody is not doing well, like really is in a position of potentially harming self or others, that that person has a support network here of peers and adults,” Yager said. “That’s the best way for us to ensure the safety of this institution, by really being kind and helpful and looking out for each other.”

Additional reporting by Gloria Zhang.

An abridged version of this article was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on Nov. 18, 2019.