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Clearing the air over Patterson lockdown

PATTERSON -- An overcapacity crowd spilled out the gymnasium doors during a Monday forum for parents seeking answers about last week's brawl at Patterson High School, which resulted in a lockdown of the campus.

School district officials apologized for the way the incident was handled, adding that some changes are in place and others will be forthcoming. Superintendent Patrick Sweeney took responsibility for waiting until the lockdown was almost over before notifying parents.

"Quite frankly, we needed to sort out what was happening," Sweeney told the crowd of about 400 people at Apricot Valley Elementary School. "That was my fault. I wanted you informed as quickly as possible, but the search took look longer and longer."

Sweeney added that "our students were safe and calm," and commended the school staff for jumping into the midst of the fights before deputies and officers arrived.

About a dozen fights broke out Wednesday during a morning break, after a student pulled a fire alarm. Dozens of Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies and California Highway Patrol officers responded, and the school was placed on lockdown for 3½ hours while deputies searched for a reported gun.

None was found, although three empty shotgun shells were discovered in a classroom the next day. Authorities said they believe that was a prank.

Ten students have been suspended in connection with the fights; several could be expelled, Sweeney said. Those who stopped fighting when school employees intervened likely will not get expelled, he added.

Parents were allowed to write questions, comments and suggestions on index cards during Monday night's forum. A moderator read the questions aloud to a seven-member panel of three school board members, two ministers, the superintend- ent and sheriff's spokesman Royjindar Singh.

Most of the inquiries were for the superintendent. Audience members asked why some students were allowed to use cell phones during the lockdown, while others were barred from making calls.

Sweeney said the district is reviewing its policy about cell phones, but agreed that it was a benefit for students to have phones because it gave students a chance to calm their parents by speaking to them from locked classrooms.

He said in the future the school district will designate a place for parents and the media to get regular updates. The district also is looking at how to deal with a large media turnout, he said.

"I apologize for (parents) not having a place to sit down and give organized updates," Sweeney said.

Other members of the audience raised concerns about the way the lockdown was conducted. Students reportedly were not allowed outside to use the restroom, resulting in some having to improvise inside classrooms.

Another parent said her daughter was searched by a male officer, who "placed his hands inside her pants."

Singh said that male officers are only supposed to give a quick pat down to girls and women, and said that specific allegations could be followed up with an investigation.

"There was a female officer who couldn't be everywhere at all times. There are only certain ways they can search females," Singh said.

Audience members were not permitted to stand and ask questions of the panel, but responded with applause or jeers to different remarks.

Some of the most enthusiastic responses came from suggestions about ways to solve the problems, including creating more activities for youth.

"We are all in this together. The tragedy has much to do with how we raise our own children. If we raise our children to be respectful, for diversity, respectful to themselves and respectful to the school district and police department we can curtail a lot of this negative energy," said panel member the Rev. Michael East, a pastor at a Patterson church and chaplain at an Alameda County jail.

Another meeting will be held today at 6 p.m. in the Patterson City Council chamber. It will address more specific concerns about law enforcement, including details about the gangs believed to be involved in the fights.

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

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