Jeff Jardine

No joke: Shooting quip draws police investigation in Patterson

Random searches with search dogs were still going on Sept. 20, 2007, at Patterson High School a day after a fight at the school resulted in nine arrests and a lockdown.
Random searches with search dogs were still going on Sept. 20, 2007, at Patterson High School a day after a fight at the school resulted in nine arrests and a lockdown. Modesto Bee

It doesn’t take much: a lament online. A glib but inappropriate response by a friend. A third party chiming in and churning the first two statements into a crisis.

Suddenly, a flippant comment morphs into a school shooting threat, a police investigation, school officials posting information and then trying to explain to parents that their kids are safe, and it was all vetted and taken extremely seriously.

That happened Sunday night in Patterson. A simple Snapchat conversation left some high school students and their parents freaked out and refusing to attend school Monday.

One Patterson student bemoaned flunking a test. A friend responded with a comment, in jest, saying that “you’re not going to shoot up the school, are you?” A third responded by writing about the threat of a school shooting and how he would stay home instead.

“And it blows up on social media,” Patterson Police Chief Jeff Dirkse said. “In my opinion, guilty of being grossly stupid not by letting a rumor run but by creating the rumor.”

And it did run. The posts caught the eye of a parent who contacted authorities. Patterson Police Services deputies contacted the parties involved and their parents.

“It really was kids being stupid,” Patterson Joint Unified School District Superintendent Phil Alfano said.

The mere mention of shooting cannot be brushed off without investigation – not after Virginia Tech, Columbine and Sandy Hook and other school shootings across the nation. Not after Modesto police had to investigate supposed threats at Enoch High last November, finding them not to be threats at all but conversation during a video game. Not after four students were arrested at Summerville High School last spring after allegedly plotting an attack on the campus. And not after a 13-year-old middle school student in Hughson received a death threat on her cellphone last week. It turned out to be from a 10-year-old boy using his mother’s government-provided cellphone.

Indeed, glib jokes about shooting up schools or anything else aren’t funny. Those days are long gone, just as you don’t joke with airport customs agents about smuggling items into the country. They’ll cuff you first, laugh at you for being stupid later.

This case was no different, sans the handcuffs.

“It really was a nonissue,” Alfano said. Except that, to some parents, it became one and remained one and reminded him of a similar one he encountered while principal at Modesto’s Downey High about a decade ago.

“Somebody posted (about a threat) on MySpace, and it became social chatter,” he said. “It occurred on a weekend, and by the time everybody came back on Monday it had blown up.”

And while principal at Mark Twain Junior High in 1999, he brought in psychologist Phil Trompetter to talk to about dealing with events like a school shooting, and found one faculty member who thought the whole exercise was a waste of time.

“The next day was Columbine (school shooting in Colorado),” Alfano said. “That guy walked around with his head down for about a month.”

Which is why every threat needs to be investigated, verified and dealt with or discredited and that information disseminated to the school and community.

“They drain resources and take away from other things we could be doing,” Dirske said. “But we have to take them seriously.”

The problem with this one, Alfano said, is that despite the fact the police talked to the students involved and the parents of the students involved and determined it was just a stupid joke by one kid that was blown out of proportion by another, some parents refused to believe authorities.

“Any rational person would see that the kids were just messing around,” he said. “Even so, you’ve got a safety protocol. You follow it and get the information to the people, and you’ve still got a handful of parents who say, ‘I’m not bringing my kid to school.’ I understand that people are feeding into it (the rumor). But once you’ve been told by law enforcement that it’s over, it’s over. Send them to school.”

Those who stayed out Monday were treated as unexcused absences. Failed to turn in an assignment? Too bad. Zero credit.

If the student was scheduled to take a test? Sorry, fail.

And this time, please don’t lament about it on Snapchat. The last time a student did that – Sunday night, in fact – it turned it a police investigation and panic.