Lockdown fallout in Patterson

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)
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) Modesto Bee

PATTERSON -- A day after Patterson High School was locked down because of widespread fighting, a teacher found three shotgun shell casings in a classroom, sparking another security scare.

Sheriff's spokesman Royjindar Singh said the shotgun shells were placed in a manner that was "meant to be found" as a prank or an act of intimidation. The casings likely were dropped at the school early Thursday, he said, because deputies thoroughly swept all the classrooms the previous day and didn't find them.

Dogs searched the campus Wednesday and again Thursday, looking for weapons, Singh said.

Other schools in Stanislaus County increased security as a precaution.

Modesto police put extra patrols around junior high and high school campuses, Sgt. Pat Kimes said. He said the investigation in Patterson so far shows no connection to Modesto.

Despite beefed-up security, attendance was sparse on the Patterson campus of 1,600 students. About 250 stayed home, although some showed up later in the day after district officials assured them that the campus was safe, Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said.

Rachel Fisiahi, 14, said there were only seven students in her first class of the day, and most of her other classes were poorly attended.

"It was empty in all the classrooms," said Celeste Castillo, 14.

School officials added two supervisors and brought in retired administrators to help. Several sheriff's deputies patrolled the campus and the area around the school throughout the day.

Tammie Cooper opted to have her daughter stay away from school and said she will likely do the same today. It was a tough decision, she said, because her daughter is a senior and doesn't want to miss classes. But she said her daughter's safety is more important.

'Way out of control'

"Patterson is not equipped to handle things like that. It's way out of control. They said it was OK to send children back, but parents are still devastated," Cooper said.

Nine students have been arrested and suspended. All nine are facing expulsion, school officials said.

The fights began about 9:45 a.m. Wednesday as half the school's students were outdoors for a 15-minute nutrition break. Someone pulled a fire alarm to get one student to come outside, Singh said, and as the rest of the students evacuated, the fights broke out.

"We believe it was planned fights between rival gangs," Sweeney said.

Initial reports put the number of students brawling at about 100, but district officials said Thursday during a news conference that they believe the number is much lower. Sweeney estimated that 12 to 25 students were engaged in the fights and the rest were onlookers.

Sweeney defended the district's decision not to notify parents until 1:20 p.m. Wednesday, more than three hours after the fights broke out and the campus was put on lockdown. Students were released at 1:30 p.m.

The district has a communication system that notified about 6,000 parents by phone simultaneously. Sweeney said that the district waited to send the message to ensure that deputies had enough time search the campus for a gun. None was found.

"We didn't have much to tell them," Sweeney said.

The lack of information infuriated a number of parents who gathered on the lawn outside the school Wednesday during the 3½-hour ordeal, waiting for the students to be released. Most of the 200 parents who were waiting had been called by their children via cell phone or heard about the lockdown on the news.

Polly Marbel said she heard about the incident on the radio. Marbel went to the high school just as the students were being released, and was able to pick up her 16-year-old daughter. When she got home, she had a message on her answering machine from the school, but Marbel wondered why she wasn't notified sooner.

"I understand that it's hard to call everyone, but there were a lot of upset parents," said Marbel, who thought about keeping her 16-year-old daughter home from school Thursday but decided against it after hearing reports that nothing had been found on campus.

"I felt it was safe to go to school. There were no shootings, no stabbings, so I found it acceptable," Marbel said.

Teams target gang members

Police Chief Tyrone Spencer said that additional deputies are patrolling the city, and enforcement teams are targeting gang members. The teams will identify gang members and "give them the option of stopping gang activity, leaving Patterson or going to jail," he said.

Singh said four deputies will patrol tonight's football game at Patterson High School, a typical figure for the event. However, the school district will have additional staff on hand and deputies will patrol the area around the stadium.

People should feel "absolutely safe" attending the game, he said.

Spencer said Wednesday's melee was instigated by a relatively new Patterson-based gang called the Runners. The gang has at least 30 known members, most of whom have ties to a similar Bay Area gang.

"They are actively involved in altercations with Norteños and Sureños," said Spencer, who described the Runners as the gang causing the "single most number of issues" in Patterson.

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

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