Community shocked by public lunchtime altercation


Sophia Bella

“I felt the pain from everybody,” music director Kyoko Yamamoto said after Friday’s incident. “Everybody was in so much pain — except those people who were laughing, and spectating, and even taking videos.”

At lunchtime on Thursday, Feb. 2, an altercation between two students in the quad quickly escalated into a violent situation prompting intervention by several administrators and safety officials, including principal Jen Fong and assistant principals Aimee Malcolm and Joshua Knudson. 

“We were all shocked,” Fong said. “I know what I was shocked at was that I had restrained her, and I had been talking to her about taking a deep breath, and then she got out of my grasp and ran towards other people. So it seemed like it would calm, and then it would escalate.”

But as administrators rushed to quell the violence, a loud crowd circled around them, with many climbing on tables and capturing the incident on their phones. That was all a blur to Fong, who was focused on calming the student down.

“I was afraid that other students could get hurt because they were in proximity. That was probably my biggest concern,” Fong said. “We were trying to kind of corral the students to try to make sure that she didn’t hurt anyone else, and also that she didn’t hurt herself.”

Although some students initially tried to help staff respond, the presence of the crowd — which clearly exceeded 100 students — soon became an obstacle to that effort. Eventually, after several minutes of struggle, the student was escorted away from the quad and into a private space.

“That student was in serious distress, and everyone was watching it — and that wasn’t helping the situation,” Fong said. “And then we were trying to get her to exit, so we needed people to clear, and then she ended up not moving…Maybe, if people had dispersed, maybe she would have walked willingly with us, and we could have de-escalated a little bit.”

The student involved had attended music teacher Kyoko Yamamoto’s class before lunch. As Yamamoto watched the situation escalate, she began to feel pain for those involved — and frustration with those videotaping it.

“I felt the pain from everybody,” Yamamoto said. “Everybody was in so much pain — except those people who were laughing, and spectating, and even taking videos.”

Although “not surprised” that a crowd broke out, Yamamoto emphasized the importance of empathy and privacy when one is in such a “dark” place.

“Do you want yourself doing that to be broadcasted into the world?” Yamamoto said. “Will you be proud of what you’re doing right now? 20 years from now, 30 years from now — will you be proud? Do you want to show that to your college admissions?”

Following the incident, Fong sent two emails: one directly to staff, and another to the wider Burlingame community. She also appeared on BTV Friday to address the incident, accompanied by Malcolm, Knduson and Coach Rich, a campus safety specialist.

“Staff were asking me to send out a message because they did hear students laughing and passing it around,” Fong said. “I very quickly just said to the staff, ‘“I’m about to tell you about an incident, but if students are coming to you, please treat this with respect. It’s not a laughing matter.’”

Junior Griffin Reese said his fifth-period teacher, Shane Karshan, addressed the incident with his class.

“My English teacher talked a lot about this in fifth period,” Reese said. “He said it’s a terrible thing. I agree with him because all of these kids are filming these people who they don’t know anything about in a vulnerable position, and I think things can easily be taken out of proportion.”

Fong acknowledged that widespread video footage of the incident was inevitable, especially given that cell phone recordings are often used to hold public officials accountable. Fong said she was more worried about how students reacted to the situation and the accompanying video. 

“I think it’s a question of, ‘How can you act responsibly when you see something like this?’” Fong said. “And that’s what I said on BTV: ‘You might have laughed about this. But did you actually think it was funny or did you think something else?’”

Malcolm, who was heavily involved in responding to the situation, echoed Fong’s sentiment, encouraging students to take the time to process their emotions.

“Laughter may mask discomfort, fear, confusion and deep concern — all very valid feelings after an incident like that,” Malcolm said on BTV. “During difficult times, I ask that we come together as a BHS community to support one another with compassion and empathy.”

Although no staff were hurt during the situation — and Fong said she doesn’t expect fights to become any more regular on campus — the incident serves as a reminder of the prevalence of mental health challenges among students.  

Fong and the rest of the administration encouraged students to lean on wellness counselors and other trusted adults for support, and to use the Anonymous Alerts system if they notice friends or classmates in distress.


*Correction: a prior version of this article included a misspelled name, which has since been edited.