Children at Oakland's Horace Mann Elementary School spent most of Tuesday — the second day of the school year — sequestered in classrooms, while police searched for suspects in a string of early-morning home-invasion robberies. It was the second time in two days that the district "locked down" a school to shield students from nearby police activity.
“It’s really not a good way to start the school year,” said Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland Unified School District. “It really underscores some of the problems we have in our community and some of the challenges that we're fighting against as we try and educate kids and insulate them to some extent from the problems of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
While parents said this was an unusual occurrence at Horace Mann, Flint said that lockdowns are becoming more frequent as Oakland struggles to deal with violent crime. He said that on average “two to four” schools are locked down every week. During those times, students are kept in classrooms without large windows.
“We do these as a precaution,” said Flint. “That figure doesn’t really represent an imminent threat to the school.”
The 350 children at Horace Mann were not in danger, Flint said, as police searched the neighborhood for suspects in three home-invasion robberies and an armed robbery that occurred early Tuesday morning.
Officers arrested five men after a standoff at a house two blocks from the East Oakland elementary school. Police spokesman Chris Bolton said the suspects surrendered voluntarily after police spoke to the men, first on a loudspeaker and then by cell phone. One heavyset suspect became stuck in his hiding place in the attic, and police had to call the fire department to get him out, Bolton said.
The lockdown began at 9 a.m., and parents rushed to the school to get their children as the news trickled out. Some banged on the locked school doors while they waited for administrators to let the students out.
“I’m very worried and I’m frightened for these children,” said Marina Rivera, who came to pick up her son Isaiah, a first grader, just before noon. “I ran here as soon as I heard to see what was going on.”
Haneef Abdullah said a friend told him that helicopters were circling the elementary school. He left work to pick up his son Haneef Abdullah Jr., also a first grader, but had to wait for over an hour until school officials began letting kids go with their parents after 1 p.m. When they did, he carried the smiling first grader out to his car in his arms.
“I understand their process, but I think we should have been informed better,” Abullah said.
Flint said the school district waits to call parents until the situation is under control, although he acknowledged that causes anxiety.
“It clearly is a stress factor not only for students, but parents as well,” said Flint.
On Monday, the first day of class, a high school and an elementary school in the district were placed on lockdown, while police searched for a carjacking suspect who pointed a gun at a driver’s head in West Oakland and then stole his Jaguar.
The car was later spotted in East Oakland, at which point police gave chase, first in vehicles, then on foot, according to the Oakland Tribune. An Oakland police officer and a suspect exchanged gunfire, but no injuries were reported.
Students at Castlemont High School and East Oakland Pride Elementary School, which were near the site of the shooting, were prohibited from moving around their campuses beginning at noon, Flint said.
At Horace Mann, the children were allowed to eat lunch as they sat and waited. Flint said counselors are on hand for students.
“Generally what we tell kids is they are not in danger, and we are taking extra precautions to keep them safe,” said Flint.
Students whose parents hadn't picked them up earlier began leaving when the school day ended at 2:45 p.m. — but the district reinstated the lockdown at 3 p.m., after police said they had uncovered new information about additional suspects in the neighborhood. The remaining students were allowed to go home at 4 p.m., seven hours after the lockdown began.
“We try to create schools as an oasis from everyday life, but we can't insulate the schools from surrounding neighborhoods,” Flint said.