John Rieping/The Madera Tribune
Parents and children stand outside the Madera Unified School District main office Wednesday after voicing concerns inside about rumors of a student threat against Howard Elementary School.
News of an old student threat against Howard Elementary School and rumors of its renewal spurred parents to withdraw their children and seek answers Wednesday.
A student came forward March 29 to belatedly report a statement a fellow student made months before, according to Principal Judi Szpor. “Two months ago, another student asked this gentleman, ‘So if you had the opportunity, would you shoot the school up?’ That’s how it started,” she said at an impromptu midday meeting Wednesday with parents.
Madera County sheriff’s deputies investigated and concluded the student’s words “did not rise to the level of criminal threats and no arrest was made,” according to the sheriff’s office.
By mid-week, rumors were circulating that the student had made a menacing comment to the school nurse. But the nurse said she hadn’t seen or talked with the student this year, said Vice Principal Michelle Angus.
Another rumor was that the student had upset others by renewing his threat on the bus Wednesday morning.
“I myself along with other parents were at the school when children were coming in that just got off the bus — concerned, crying, (and) wanting to go home,” said parent Adriana Gonzalez. “I mean it’s just one thing after another and no one has notified any of us as parents. And it’s our children that are telling us. It’s our children that are even scared to talk about it because they’re now scared of this individual.”
Angus said “crying girls” had alleged the student made a comment on the bus en route to school Wednesday morning, though she did not personally hear what they reported as their parents took them home before she could do so.
MUSD gang specialist Lawrence Fernandez explained what the district would do in such a situation, “Typically this is what happens: if those kids were taken home, we’re going to get their address and we’re going to interview them at their home. That’s what we’re going to do.”
A statement from the sheriff’s office Wednesday said the surfacing of “new concerns” about the months-old threat appeared likely “a result of miscommunications about another completely unrelated incident that occurred at another school last week.”
That appears to refer to the experience of parent Mark Jackson.
Jackson, a licensed clinical social worker, said he’d been informed by his daughter of a school shooting threat Wednesday morning and so called law enforcement. “The 911 dispatcher said that the sheriff and police have investigated it and that there was no way that this kid could physically be in school this morning,” Jackson said.
Despite the assurance, Jackson’s daughter had seen the student at Howard School. Alarmed, he talked to school staff before turning to the main office of Madera Unified School District. He and other anxious parents were told by Alyson Crafton, director of student services, that the sheriff’s department admitted to mistaking Jackson’s inquiry that morning as referring to another student, who had allegedly threatened a different school.
“This is not unique to one school site,” Crafton said. “This is something district-wide that we have to deal with.”
Unlike the student elsewhere, the one at Howard School would be allowed to attend daily after a morning backpack search and verbal check-in with school staff, she said.
This didn’t ease the fears of parents upset the student had not been expelled for his alleged threat.
“A little girl had to do a report about a school shooting,” said Gonzalez, “and my son, along with other students, were in this classroom (March 29) and asked this kid, ‘Hey, were you being serious when you said this? Did you mean that?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ That he thought about it and he would do it.”
In its statement Wednesday, the sheriff’s office concluded, “There is currently no evidence of any threat to the school, other than the statements made a few months ago that did not amount to a criminal threat.”
Fernandez assured parents he would collaborate in the future with law enforcement regarding threats to any school in the district “from beginning to end to make sure … your children are safe and that we’re on the same page.”
“So that I can come to you in confidence… saying I investigated it from point A to point B, and I felt confident enough, and so did everybody that we worked with, ... that we feel that they’re not a threat,” Fernandez said. “And if there is a threat that kid will be arrested. The one case that we did have where we dealt with a threat there was no access to weapons. They were arrested, in juvenile hall, and expelled from school. And they were in juvenile hall for two months.”
The school district placed “extra personnel who can provide social-emotional support” on the Howard School campus Thursday. The school will also be lenient with those pulled from class Wednesday.
“There will be no failing grades,” said Szpor about students absent from state testing Wednesday. “Everyone has the educational right in California code. And that’s the bottom line. They have the legal right to an education. They have a legal right to a safe environment.”
The Howard Parent Teacher Club plans to hold its 2nd annual Family Game Night fundraiser from 5:30-7:30 p.m. April 12 at Howard School. It will include a single elimination video game tournament along with non-electronic games and activities.
But Jackson hopes parents will consider going to another event to speak up about Howard School: the MUSD school board meeting set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, at the district office, 1902 Howard Road.