Jeff Jardine

Did awareness of shootings elsewhere prevent tragedy in Tuolumne?

Summerville High assembly in aftermath of shooting plot

Law enforcement authorities and Summerville High administrators and students converged at a morning assembly to discuss the shooting plot uncovered by the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Deparment. (Brian Clark/bclark@modbee.com)
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Law enforcement authorities and Summerville High administrators and students converged at a morning assembly to discuss the shooting plot uncovered by the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Deparment. (Brian Clark/bclark@modbee.com)

Columbine. Aurora. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook, and now Roseburg, Ore.

Each place is synonymous with the tragedy of a mass shooting, of carnage, of innocent lives lost, of tears and heartbreak. Such slaughters offer no positives. They leave good folks fearing for their safety and wondering how a human soul could grow so dark and devoid of humanity. These events have people pouring their hearts out to grief counselors.

Such was the case Monday at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where 10 people died in Thursday’s shooting on campus.

At the same time, more than 500 miles to the south, the majority of the 700-plus students who attend Summerville High School east of Sonora, along with some parents and faculty, filed into the school’s gymnasium. But this wasn’t about grieving. It was a time to be thankful, and a moment for the administration and local law enforcement to reassure the community that everything is fine. They are safe.

Why? Because a Summerville student last week overheard some other students talking about their plan to shoot the place up and reported it to a teacher. A hero, this student, whose name is being withheld. Because the days of shrugging off these kinds of threats as something that would never happen at your school are long gone, with awareness raised because of those other shootings. Because the teacher believed the student’s account of what was heard and reported it to administrators. And because the administrators called in the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department.

Wednesday, two days before the Oregon shooting, Summerville High officials plucked three members of this all-boys alleged cabal out of their classrooms. Sheriff’s investigators searched their homes and determined they indeed planned to hurt a number of people. They even made a hit list that included staff and other students. Authorities arrested a fourth boy Friday and unveiled the plot during a news conference over the weekend. The plan was in the early stages.

“(The plotters) had identified more than a handful of targets. There were several targeted (students and staff),” Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele said. “They were trying to identify a place where they could get weapons.”

Sheriff’s investigators expected by Monday evening to have completed the process of meeting with every person on the hit list, to let them know they were there and to understand what made them targets.

To think something like that could happen in your school or community is, indeed, unsettling. Hence, the assembly in the gym, where Superintendent Robert Griffith told them they are loved.

“When a student or students does anything to interrupt creating a place that you feel valued, cared for, safe and free to be yourself and learn, that is highly disturbing to me,” he told the group.

Student Zach Marquez spoke as well, trying to bring a sense of calm to the emotions experienced by some. Some parents have been critical of the authorities, demanding more information and an explanation of why information wasn’t available sooner.

“I wondered why we’re in sorrow,” Marquez said. “(Why) we’re crying about this kind of stuff? It didn’t happen. It couldn’t be a tragedy, but in the end we’re all still here and here for each other.”

Counselors from the Tuolumne County superintendent of schools office set up shop in the library to aid students or staff who were, indeed, having a difficult time dealing with what happened, or didn’t.

“They were trickling in,” Griffith said. “It hasn’t been overwhelming, but there have been some.”

Marquez said he considers the student who reported the incident a hero.

“Thank you to whoever that individual was that came out and spoke and had the courage to stand up and see what was wrong because basically you saved our lives,” he said.

The plot went nowhere. The plotters went to juvenile hall, the only harm done to themselves and their own family members who are left wondering along with everyone else what compelled them to even consider something so heinous and despicable.

Now the juvenile court system will handle the case. The four no doubt will undergo psychiatric evaluations. They planned, but didn’t act if only because they were busted before they could pull it off, authorities said.

The irony, if such a thing applies in a case like this, its that Summerville staff and faculty will spend the entire day Oct. 19 training for incidents like what just transpired both at their school on the prevention side and what happened in Roseburg and Sandy Hook on the reaction side.

“It’s been scheduled since last summer,” Griffith said.

The most important part of any training will be never to dismiss or ignore a perceived threat or to report suspicious behavior. It can mean the difference between Monday in Tuolumne or Monday in Roseburg.

There are absolutely no positives to such shootings, only lessons and awareness.

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