200 parents gather as officers hunt for gun during Patterson High lockdown; 4 students arrested

September 20, 2007 

JBL Patterson Lockdown 1

Patterson High School students under lockdown put a sign in the window of the classroom they are kept in on Wednesday afternoon. (Joan Barnett Lee / The Modesto Bee)

JOAN BARNETT LEE — Modesto Bee

PATTERSON -- A dozen brawls involving nearly 100 students erupted at Patterson High School on Wednesday, prompting about 30 sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers to descend on the campus to quell the violence.

The melee, which authorities and students said was likely gang-related, started just before 10 a.m. The school was placed on lockdown while members of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's department searched for a reported gun on campus.

About 200 parents gathered anxiously on the lawn outside the school during the nearly four-hour ordeal, many with cell phones pressed to their ears as they spoke to their children, who were locked inside classrooms. No weapons were found and the students were released a little after 1:30 p.m. Four people were arrested.

The day's events started during the morning recess when some- one pulled a fire alarm as a prank. Everyone was waiting outside because of the fire alarm when a student jumped another student, said Sandra Pementel, 17, a sen- ior at the high school.

"All of a sudden, a fight breaks out," Sandra said. "There was another fight, and then another fight."

The school staff ran around frantically trying to subdue the fights, she said, but "then another would break out." Sandra said she watched as a teacher tackled one of the fighting students, pinning the teenager to the pavement.

Sheriff's deputies received a call about the fire alarm at 9:45 a.m.; when they arrived they found about a dozen fights at the campus, said deputy Royjindar Singh, a sheriff's spokesman.

About 25 sheriff's deputies and several officers from the California Highway Patrol responded to the high school, where they were able to "gain control of the school" and immediately place it under lockdown, Singh said.

Four students had minor injuries and were treated by an ambulance crew on campus, Singh said. Four 17-year-old males were arrested, he said. All were charged with fighting on school grounds, and two also were charged with assault and fighting a school staff member.

"People were getting dragged, pushed and hit. ... People weren't caring if other people were in the way. They were so violent," Crystal Crawford, a 16-year-old junior, said by cell phone from the cafeteria during the lockdown.

She hurt her arm when she got pushed to the ground, she said. "It was like a giant mosh pit."

Minutes after students were herded into the classrooms, parents said their cell phones started ringing with calls from frightened children.

"My daughter called me and said fights were everywhere and teachers were pushing students to every classroom," said Maria Vera, who stood, wearing red and white pajamas, outside along with other parents.

Robert Ortiz also got a panicked cell phone call from his daughter, who pleaded with him, "Get me out of here, Dad. I don't want to be here."

School officials told the parents to go home and wait for a phone call, but no one heeded. Several parents were visibly shaken, crying and demanding their children be released.

"I'm not going anywhere," Ortiz said.

Inside the locked classrooms, some students watched the incident unfold live on local television news.

Katie McCollum, 14, said her class surfed the Web for stories about the lockdown and watched the news on a projector. They also did some classwork, writing in a journal about "How today affected us," and took turns reading "The Brothers Grimm."

Deputies and high school students said the fights were gang-related. The Runners, a relatively new Patterson-based gang, likely are responsible for some of the violence and detectives are investigating "the other half," Singh said.

Sandra and friend Stephanie Machain, 17, said that they have no doubt the violence is gang- related. "It's been going on -- it's the Norteños, Sureños and the Runners," Stephanie said.

They said tensions escalated after an 18-year-old Patterson man with alleged gang ties was shot and killed last month in Crows Landing outside a quinceañera. And on Tuesday, there was a fight at a park near the school.

Sheriff's deputies are looking at the connection.

"We're still investigating the fight on the campus and the one (Tuesday) evening. We were told it may have a connection to the Crows Landing homicide," Singh said.

Authorities said security will be beefed up at the campus, and officials at Modesto City Schools said that they would take precautions, too.

Sandra is worried about the violence.

"Our senior year is getting messed up because of gangs," Sandra said. "Our town isn't known for this. I want to go to school and not worry about being shot."

Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at csalerno@modbee.com or 238-4574.

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