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Schools vs. Rumor Mill

A threat at Downey High School to "shoot up the school" resulted in fewer students in class, more police on campus and school officials trying to handle a "mushrooming" rumor mill Monday.

A note scrawled in a bathroom was discovered Sept. 25 by a student, who reported it to school officials. The note said: "I'm going to shoot up the school. Better watch out on Oct 1st."

Late Friday afternoon, school officials identified a senior boy who they believe wrote the graffiti in a bathroom near the band room. He was overheard talking about the written threat, and school officials believed his handwriting was consistent with the graffiti in the bathroom.

Principal Phil Alfano said neither police nor school officials believed the note posed a "credible threat" to students.

"If we thought he was serious, he'd have been out in handcuffs," Alfano said. "I think he accomplished what he wanted. He got lots of attention."

The situation illustrated the challenge that school administrators face in balancing the need to get information out immediately with not creating too much fear.

Alfano said he got roughly 100 calls Monday from parents concerned about their children coming to school.

William Bourns, an assistant professor who teaches the course Crime Prevention and Schools at California State University, Stanislaus, called the post-Columbine era a "time of nervousness" in schools. He said the No. 1 criticism among parents dealing with administrators about threats on campus is a lack of information.

"In this day and age of instant communication, we've got to find ways to address that problem," Bourns said. "(Parents) need it quickly ... so they can make good choices. The fear of crime is always greater than the crime itself. Incidents like this just boomerang the fear of crime."

Alfano said the boy, who was given a five-day suspension, has no gang ties or history of serious discipline problems or violence at Downey High.

Monday morning, Modesto police had three officers on campus -- two more than usual -- and others nearby.

Alfano said attendance was about 10 percent lower than normal Monday, which means an extra 240 students stayed home. Students who stayed home because of the threats will be given unexcused absences, Alfano said. He attributed the reduction in attendance to rumors circu-lated over the weekend on students' MySpace.com per- sonal pages.

"It mushroomed out of control," Alfano said. "It's like the old game of Telephone. The further away you get from the original source, the more outrageous it becomes."

The MySpace pages included comments linking threats to the Virginia Tech shootings and urging friends to stay home from school.

"NOBODY KNOWS WHO IT IS ... OR WHEN IT ACTUALLY MAY HAPPEN!!" wrote one student.

"That's ... scary I am not going to school that day at all," another student wrote back.

The threat followed several school safety incidents in recent weeks, including gang fights at Patterson High School on Sept. 19 and a hostage situation at an Oroville high school Friday.

Vicki Bauman, director of prevention programs for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, said students often try to continue the momentum by "copycatting" these events to get attention.

"When school safety's in the limelight, (students) know how to get to people," Bauman said. Notes passed in classrooms, writing on bathroom walls and threats tend to follow.

She said each district sets its own policy on when to notify parents or cancel classes.

"It's the schools' responsibil-ity to decide if it's a threat or not, a valid threat. Because what they don't want to do is close class based on any threat, because you'd be closed everyday."

Ceres Unified School District rolled out a system in July that can simultaneously e-mail, text message and send voice mail messages to parents about a lockdown or other emergencies.

The district used the system on Sept. 19 when a student brought an unloaded gun to Central Valley High School and the campus went into lockdown, district spokesman Jay Simmonds said.

'I wish I had been told'

But Simmonds acknowledged that a "fine line" exists between calming parents' fears with information and creating more panic.

"In this day and age of cell phones, the children will notify (parents) from the classrooms," Simmonds said. "If a rumor is going around campus regarding any type of threat situation, we believe in trying to clarify the rumor with parents. We have found in the past that that works best."

At Downey, some parents were unhappy that school officials didn't notify them about the threats.

"I wish I had been told," said Yvonne Looney, who found out about the threats for the first time as she picked her daughter up after school Monday. "Of course, everybody wants to know what's going on at school."

"I was really worried last night because all my friends said they were going to stay home," said Ashley Maruyama, 17, who stayed home because of the threat. "It's not right to keep that kind of a thing secret."

The suspended student was identified near the end of school Friday afternoon, too late to send students home with a note, Alfano said. He also decided, along with district administrators, that there was no "immediate threat" to students that would warrant a note or calls to parents.

"I don't think sending something home Friday would have stopped the rumor mill. I think it may have made it worse," Alfano said. "Or it could have interfered with the investigation, because kids could start covering."

Police searched the boy's locker and went to his home Friday but found no weapons, said spokesman Sgt. Craig Gundlach. The boy has denied responsibil-ity for the graffiti.

Gundlach said the investigation is continuing because police have not conclusively identified a suspect.

"Hopefully, we can get them some counseling or help or dig in a little bit deeper to find out what the reasons are behind the threat," Gundlach said.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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