Commentary: Pioneer Locked Down After Misunderstanding


Pioneer-ESAt 2:30 pm on Tuesday, the Davis School District put out a notice from Public Information Officer Maria Clayton: “Around 2pm today, there was a report of a suspicious person outside of Pioneer Elementary. The police department put the school in temporary lockdown for precautionary measures. Police were on the scene to investigate and within a short period, the lockdown was lifted, with no signs of suspicious activity. Student dismissal will occur as regularly scheduled.”

At the time, I was on my way to Sacramento, and, having seen the email, I alerted my wife since our sixth grader attends Pioneer, which is around the corner from where we live.

In our sixth grader’s version of the story, the guy had a gun and six police officers had to take him down on school property.

Naturally, we were a little concerned. However, Assistant Chief Darren Pytel assured me that there was no gun – and I obtained the police report.

What happened is that two second graders reported to a teacher that a dark-skinned male in a large charcoal gray truck made a “shooting motion with his hands” or “finger.” There was no weapon actually seen.

The vehicle was seen on Hamel Street near Pioneer Park. The principal placed the school on lockdown and an employee called the police. Officers arrived and checked the area and contacted the second grade students.

What actually happened is that, when officers contacted the person in question, he explained that he was a volunteer at the school and was holding up his name tag so that the students could see he was a not a stranger.

The lockdown was then lifted and there was no arrest made.

End of story, so it would seem. We have had a few of these lockdowns in recent months. The idea of erring on the side of caution in light of active shooter situations makes some sense.

Back in May, officers were called to Emerson Junior High School to investigate a report of a man wearing all black clothing, holding a gun in front of the campus.

The caller seemed to be distraught and ended the phone conversation with police dispatch before more details could be provided, police said in a news release.

Officers with the Davis Police Department, UC Davis Police Department and Yolo County Sheriff’s Office searched the school.

During the search, officers determined the initial call was a prank. Two minors accused of making the false report were taken into custody.

In January, it was a bomb threat that forced the lockdown of North Davis Elementary school, in which a caller advised school officials that they had 30 minutes to evacuate the campus. The school was immediately evacuated, and everyone was moved to the Davis Art Center.

The first two incidents were pranks, the one yesterday was a misunderstanding.

There are a number of concerns here – one is that lockdowns, even if they are unlikely to result in a serious incident, are likely to take a huge emotional toll on the parents and students at the schools.

Second, at some point these incidents are prone to become like the little boy crying wolf, with the authorities and schools over time likely to ramp down their response.

Finally, we are relying on the perceptions of second graders here. Every so often, young children’s alertness helps to save lives but they are also likely to produce a lot of false alarms.

It may well be that this is the only safe way we can do things – go all out on every report in case it develops into something very real.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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38 thoughts on “Commentary: Pioneer Locked Down After Misunderstanding”

  1. Barack Palin

    It may well be that this is the only safe way we can do things – go all out on every report in case it develops into something very real.

    The school and the police have no choice, they have to take every threat seriously.

    1. Davis Progressive

      why do they have no choice?  how would the police respond to the same situation in the middle of downtown?  they would have investigated the man before closing of all of downtown.

      1. Barack Palin

        You’re assuming that the police were able to immediately investigate the man.  Once the school and the police were notified they had to act promptly or they were possibly putting the children in further danger.  It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback.

  2. hpierce

    An old adage from survival training comes to mind… “prepare for the worst, expect the best”.  I hope that the individual was approached with “awareness”, with a touch of “wariness”, and not assuming he was a “clear and present danger”.

    The latter is a recipe for potential tragedy.

    Sounds like it was handled appropriately.

        1. Barack Palin

          Frankly, I’m wondering too.  We have a situation where the kids felt threatened by what they thought was a man making a shooting motion towards them and the police took proper precautions.  With all the school shootings you would think people would just be thankful that it turned out to be a false alarm and that the police acted quickly to protect the children.  Sometimes the cops just can’t win.

        2. Michelle Millet

          Is it the “dark skin” part of this story that is causing you to see it as an over-reaction?

          This has nothing to do with my reaction. I have an issue with the over-use of lockdowns by our district.

          We had one at Birch Lane a few years ago because a junior high kid was spotted with pepper spray in a near by neighborhood, and another a short time later because a house was robbed on Pole Line (the owner came home in the middle of the robbery and assailant bolted).  My kids spent a half hour both times hiding in bookshelves. My friends child was terrified when he couldn’t get into a classroom because all the doors were locked.

          This one is the most absurd by far.

          It’s a sad reflection to me of where we are as a society and a community that 2nd graders would think that someone showing them a badge is pretending to shoot them, and that we have a system that reinforces these irrational fears by responding the way we did.


        3. Barack Palin

          Are you saying that the school knew the person in question was a volunteer and just flashing his badge before they locked in down?  Don’t believe you.

          Where can I find the announcement?

        4. Barack Palin

          Okay, he maybe just drove around the corner and was coming back or maybe parked his car and was on foot.  They did the safe thing, they had no choice until they knew the possible threat was over.  So they didn’t know at the time, did they?

        5. Davis Progressive

          really?  maybe he was going to drive around the block as justification for locking down the school isn’t a thin reed?  really?  you’re grasping at straws now

        1. Davis Progressive

          you’re the one convinced that taking drastic actions of lockdowns is necessary for every level of threat, with no incremental approaches, do you have research or evidence to back that up?

        2. Davis Progressive

          you’re research is a list.  that really doesn’t prove much.  what was interesting was sandy hook for instance (read here: had lock down procedures and lockdown drills and the massacre still occurred.  it looks to me from a cursory reading is that lockdown’s a risk manager’s tool for providing insurance more so than a safety protocol that is likely to stop an active shooter.

    1. Paul Thober

      I agree with Michelle also. This menacing dark-skinned person with a “gun” was a school volunteer. It seems to me some adult from Pioneer could have investigated this and probably would have recognized the person and/or the truck.

      The harm done to the children by this overreaction is psychological trauma. Kind of reminds me of when I was a grade school student and we had pointless “air raid drills” the only result of which was to terrify us needlessly.

  3. PhilColeman

    To the point of it being appropriate to initiate a lock-down, note that the two public agencies involved said it was the other guy that did it. The official school public release said the police ordered the lock-down. The police report said the school was responsible. Who was it?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      There was a follow up communication by the school today: “Students reported a suspicious individual to their teachers during the PM recess. Teachers observed the individual drive away and notified the office. After calling Davis PD to investigate, we decided to err on the side of safety and put the school on lock down. “

      1. Michelle Millet

        I would urge the district to rethink there lock down protocols.

        For cases like this I think it would appropriate to keep kids inside (although in this situation even this seems an over reaction), but otherwise allow them to continue normal classroom activities, until the police can make sure that the scene is secure.

        I really hope that unlike my kids experiences at Birch Lane, that these students were not forced to hide in closets and bookshelves, not knowing why they were doing so, for an extended period of time while this situation was resolved.


        1. hpierce

          What you said in your first paragraph is what I get and support.  The second paragraph seems like serious over-reaction, in the current incident at least.  Guess I need additional info to express a valid opinion.

          Thought of the movie ‘Kindergarten Cop’… the kids were taught to identify “strangers”.  Adults need to winnow things down to react appropriately.

        2. David Greenwald Post author

          This was a case where they locked it down even after the guy had left the scene. Now it’s good that they tracked him down and found out he was no threat, but locking down at that point seemed overkill.

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