Bike thefts increase with return to in-person school

Anna Feng and Saachi Nagar

An increase in thefts is prompting Palo Alto High School staff to remind students to lock their bikes.

A community update from Principal Brent Kline on Feb. 11 noted that there has been an increase in bike thefts lately stemming from an increase in unlocked bicycles around campus. According to Kline, in a recent check around the bike racks, more than 40 bikes were not locked.

According to Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson, bike thefts have always been a concern at Paly. After returning to in-person school following two and a half years of being online, the problem has resurfaced. 

Sophomore Sophia Lee unlocks her bike after school in one of Palo Alto High School’s bike cages. Addressed in Principal Brent Kline’s community post, bike thefts have become a concern again with many students leaving their bikes unlocked during the school day. According to Lee, she started using a stronger lock due to concerns over bike thefts. “At the beginning of high school, I got a U-lock since I felt that in high school, people are older and they have more expensive bikes so I thought it [high school] would be a bigger hotspot for bike thefts,” Lee said. (Photo: Anna Feng)

“It’s just because the whole world’s waking up and people are outside again,” Berkson said. “Part of the reason there’s an increase [in bike thefts] is because no one’s been here for two years and the world’s opening up, so thieves know that kids are on campus again.”

Berkson also said Paly’s open campus policy makes it easier for people to come onto campus, steal a bike, and leave without being noticed. 

“It’s not realistic to send someone over to unlock the bike cage every two seconds, and the cameras are only so effective especially because they [bike thieves] wear a mask,” Berkson said.

Despite the issues that the open campus policy brings, Campus Supervisor Carl Hubenthal said he also understands that an open campus allows students much more freedom, which is valuable for students to experience before they graduate.

“It [having an open campus] is tough, but I think it’s probably worth it,” Hubenthal said. “I think the experience is important to have more freedom and learning that freedom before you head off to either college or get a job and have a little more understanding of the world in general because the world isn’t always a crime-free wonderful place.” 

Hubenthal said that earlier this year he counted 60 unlocked bikes in the bike cage near the Media Arts Center alone. 

“If they [the bike thieves] have to sit and cut a lock, we can get a much better description of clothes, time and be able to show the police the video of other identifying features that they can get cross-check against other data that might match with the photos, which is really good,” Hubenthal said. “But if it [the bike] is unlocked, then it can be gone really fast.”

Even with the new camera systems Palo Alto Unified School District is installing at all schools, Berkson said he is unsure how much they will really help.

“It’s exciting that new cameras are coming in, but then the time it takes to find something is a lot of time,” Berkson said. “It’s easy when there’s one bike in the rack, but when there are hundreds of bikes all stacked together, it’s really tough to track that bike.”

Berkson said he thinks students leave their bikes unlocked in the morning because they worry about being late to class. 

“They [students] forget to [lock their bikes] because they’re frazzled in the morning,” Berkson said. “They don’t want to be tardy, and they don’t realize that there are bad people in this world.”

However, some students’ experiences with bike thefts, including freshman Justin Lee, suggest that other factors including lock quality and placement of a bike in the bike rack may also contribute to bike thefts.

According to Lee, he got his bike stolen in January despite locking his bike to the rack.

“I got to school, locked my bike, and left for my fifth period class,” said Lee, “On my way from fifth to sixth period, I went to see if I had left a water bottle on my bike, and when I got there all I saw was my helmet.”

Lee now locks his bike with a different lock and locks his bike in a different area of school.

“Now after school, I always move my bike into the robotics room, and [I] also use a different U-lock,” Lee said.

Junior Caden Domingo had a similar experience to Lee, his bike was stolen in December.

“It [the bike theft] was during finals week and I locked my bike at the rack between the 300 and 400 building. Since it was finals week I was going to study in the library after school to prepare myself for the rest of the week, and when I came out to my bike all that was left was a wheel.”

According to Domingo, he now locks his bike to the U-shaped racks rather than the grid bike racks so he can lock both the bike wheel and frame.

Hubenthal said the issue of bike thefts and crime needs to be addressed by the school board and the greater Palo Alto community. 

“I think that the City of Palo Alto, not the school, needs to do some of that rather than just leaving all the onus on the school,” Hubenthal said.  “The city needs to be involved in this as well and I think it will always be a problem. Crime is not something we’re going to solve at a school level.”