A graffiti message threatening a school shooting to occur at Rancho Cotate High School on March 23 was deemed by school officials to not be credible, according to Principal Amie Carter, however, the startling threat did put to the test the school’s emergency protocol and parent/student notification of the incident, which some parents and students are saying could be improved upon.
The threat, which was found in the girl’s bathroom of the school’s science wing mid-morning, comes after several other similar graffiti and phone call threats were received throughout Sonoma County and Bay Area schools last month.
“We’ve seen on news across the country signs that have been shown and precursors that have been identified in these incidents and if we have any type of threat in any of our schools we take it very, very seriously, even if it unsubstantiated,” says Sgt. Jeff Nicks of the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety. “We’ll investigate it to our fullest extent with administrative action or criminal action.”
The school was not evacuated, nor were classes cancelled, however, some students elected to leave at lunchtime and some were pulled out by their parents. Nicks says after public safety was notified, they did send officers to patrol the campus.
“We had officers walking around campus throughout the day. The school has their own protocols and with this particular incident we believed the threat didn’t have much credibility, that’s why we had a strong police presence at the school during the investigation,” Nicks said.
Officials say the threat was written in pencil on the wall of the girl’s bathroom around the 10 a.m. hour and while school administrators and their threat assessment team said the threat was not credible, the message still caused worry and uncertainty among students and parents.
Some students say they weren’t notified of the threat until the end of the school day when administrators came over the intercom announcing the incident, while others say they heard of it through whispers and the grapevine and decided to leave school following the lunch hour due to fear of uncertainty. Likewise, some parents say they received a notification via email an hour after the discovery, while others say they didn’t receive any information on what was going on at all.
“We were not notified (right away after the threat was found). I found out about it during 4th period a few hours after it happened, but there were teachers whispering and people were saying emails were going around. I didn’t leave class but around lunch when parents found out students started to leave and by 5th period only about a third of the class showed up” says Rancho Cotate High School Senior, Chris Miller. “They didn’t say anything about it until the last five minutes of school. They never explicitly told us what was going on.”
One Rancho parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said she first heard about the incident through a friend who lives near the school and saw posts on Facebook from parents. She didn’t receive an email of the incident until or hour so later.
“I called the office and they said the police were there and told me they were releasing kids if parents wanted to,” she says. “They never really told us what was going on but that (the graffiti) was from a pencil.”
However, another Rancho parent, Susan Adams, who is also the chair of the Rohnert Park Planning Commission, says she was sent an email about the incident right away and is confident in the district’s safety preparedness and parent notification and inclusion.
“I’m very confident the teachers in our district are able to keep our children safe… I know the administrators in our district, in concert with the RP Department of Public Safety are doing everything humanly possible to track possible dangers,” Adams said.
Yet Miller said his mom did not receive any message regarding the threat.
While the reliability of the parent/student notification system for threats or other emergencies may be questionable one thing is certain, the need to have students prepared and to have a routine emergency protocol for the case of an active shooter or other threat has never been more prevalent — the devastating Parkland high school shooting still fresh in the minds of many students, parents and educators.
Carter said the school has safety trainings and active shooter protocol trainings for staff and that students participate in drills at the beginning of the school year.
“Safety training for staff is something continual and ongoing. Likewise, our students practice all our safety drills on the first two days of school and again at different points throughout the year,” Carter said.
While Carter and the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District Superintendent, Robert Haley have said there have been drills and that the staff is being trained, many students and parents report that they either haven’t been through an active shooter drill or that it has been a long time since they have had one. Many say they don’t know what they would do, or where they would go in the event of an active shooter or other emergency.
When asked if he has been through an active shooter drill at Rancho, Miller said he honestly couldn’t remember. “I’m not sure, I can’t remember, but we did evacuate to the stadium when the bomb threat occurred… I’m not sure (if students generally know what to do if there was an active shooter on campus), but my teacher explained what we would do in our classroom, but I feel like the younger students like the freshmen don’t know what to do because they haven’t been through anything that could prepare them for an active shooter,” he said, referring to the mandatory evacuation following the bomb threat last year.
When asked of Miller if he feels safe at school, he said he does but that others do have fears.
“I do personally feel safe, but I think the school should do more to alleviate fears,” Miller said.
Anonymous said according to her daughter it has been awhile since she has been through an active shooter or lockdown drill.
Another parent in the community, Cassie Vail wrote on the “Our schools, Our community, Our kids, our future,” Facebook page that she asked her son what would he do in the case of an active shooter.
“Our first question was, ‘what would you do if you heard gunshots?’ He said, ‘I don’t know run…’ I’m like, ‘Are there locks on the doors? Has the school even said one word about it?’ He said no,” Vail wrote.
In a previous email interview with Haley on emergency preparedness, he said they are doing safety training with staff and some drills with students but are cautions about including school children in some of the “scenario planning.”
“I understand that (concern), but it would be a lot more frightening if it happened and we didn’t know what to do,” Miller said.
Carter mentioned that the school does have an app which students can use to report safety concerns and alerts to school administrators.
“Students are always encouraged, that if they ‘see something, say something’ and our students use anonymous reporting app to alert us to areas of concern… Nothing is more important to my team than maintaining a safe education environment and RCHS plans to continue our efforts to keep all of our stakeholders informed and involved in maintaining a safe and inviting place for all students,” Carter said.
When asked if Miller thinks the district does a good job with safety preparedness and parent notification, he said he believes they can do a better job.
“It seems like they didn’t do a good job notifying the parents and I feel like they can do a better job on keeping us informed. I don’t think they think we can handle what is going on and I don’t think they think we deserve to know what is going on,” Miller said.
Nicks said similar graffiti threats have occurred at some other RP middle schools and that they’ve since identified and dealt with the subjects.
“We’ve had some at some middle schools and we’ve identified the subjects involved and they’ve been dealt with. We want to get the message out that we have absolutely no tolerance for this type of behavior, whether it’s a serious threat or a joke,” Nicks said.