Jeff Jardine

Crisis managers have one place to go: That hard place by a rock

Monday, with school in session, a Downey High campus supervisor noticed a boy skateboarding across the campus.

The supervisor didn't recognize the kid as being a Downey student.

"Where do you go to school and why are you here?" the supervisor inquired.

"The kid hemmed and hawed and finally said that he goes to La Loma (Junior High)," Downey Principal Phil Alfano said. "He said, 'My mom kept me home because there's supposed to be a shooting at Downey today.' "

Huh? The kid's mom keeps him home from La Loma -- roughly two miles away -- where there is no threat of violence, and he goes skateboarding at Downey, where the shooting was supposed to happen?

"I'm sure he was there to see the action," Alfano said.

Except that there was none -- beyond the buzz of the threat itself, some extra police officers on campus and the reactions of some angry parents who believe Alfano erred by not informing them of the threat found in a bathroom on Sept. 25.

Whenever there is any kind of incident on a school campus -- we've had them recently at Patterson High, Central Valley High in Ceres and now Downey -- principals react. So do police and students -- and parents, often out of panic.

Others, like the mom who supposedly pulled her kid out of La Loma because of the Downey threat, simply react to be reacting to something. Their reactions often are fueled by emotions in lieu of the most up-to-date information.

It's certainly understandable. Parents believe, rightfully, that our school campuses should be the safest places for our kids other than our own homes.

So when Alfano didn't inform parents of a scrawled threat to shoot up the Downey campus -- even though the police determined it wasn't credible -- some parents and students questioned his leadership and concern for the students' safety.

Thirty years ago, cooler heads might have prevailed. But we live in a world where some bad things have happened on school campuses: massacres at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton, Columbine High in Colorado and Virginia Tech University.

It's also a world where technology has spoiled us and, in some cases, deluded us into expecting every bit of available information upon demand.

"It's one of the blessings and curses of technology," said Jocelyn Roland, a psychologist in Modesto. "You can get information rapidly, and you're upset when you can't."

That technology -- cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet -- helped created panic over the weekend, Modesto police Lt. Chris Fuzie said.

The police investigated the threat, which was discovered Sept. 25, and discounted it. The boy school officials believe wrote it denied doing so. When officers went to his home to question him, he was not there. But his father and an attorney were. Police couldn't search the home without a warrant and didn't think they had enough real evidence to obtain one, Fuzie said.

So when Alfano decided not to notify parents, it was based on the Police Department's investigation -- not his own, authorities said.

That didn't mean the police wouldn't be prepared just in case, Fuzie said. A shooting Friday at an Oroville high school helped frame their thinking about Downey. Because the threat at Downey came before the Oroville shooting, "we knew it wasn't a copycat," Fuzie said. But after the Oroville incident, the police didn't want it to become one.

They brought extra officers to Downey on Monday just in case they were wrong about the threat.

Alfano, however, took the brunt of parents' frustrations. He said the parents who claimed they learned through their children about the threats could have contacted the school.

"We had just mailed home on Sept. 15 information about our safety hot line," Alfano said. "If they believe there's something that might happen -- a threat to students -- they can leave that tip anonymously. We got four calls on that out of nearly 2,400 students."

Yet, 254 kept their kids out of school Monday because of the threat. Tuesday's story in The Bee generated a dozen comments on Modbee.com. The vast majority were critical of Alfano.

"I feel the parents and students were let down by the administration who felt no information was the best choice," one parent wrote.

Only one suggested that parents had overreacted.

"With MySpace, text-messaging and cell-phone technology, these situations will continue until some sort of public awareness and EDUCATION is counseled to both students and parents," that poster countered.

The chances of pleasing very many parents in such circumstances are slim and none.

"People who are crisis managers are in no-win situations," said Roland, who has extensive experience in crisis management and negotiations. While working in Los Angeles County, she was on the negotiating team during O.J. Simpson's at-the-speed-limit chase in the white Bronco in 1994.

"It's always a double-edged sword," Roland said. "People should be able to get access (to information). Is there a reasonable time? And is there any forgiveness allowed?"

We'll see.

And I hope the La Loma student who cut school so he could witness a shooting wasn't too disappointed.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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