Threats of violence at Sonoma County schools leave students, parents on edge

Andy Brennan’s fifth-period honors history class was supposed to learn about Nazi Germany this week. Instead, they were taught that when hiding from an active shooter, an engine block provides better cover than hiding behind a car door. Bullets will go right through those.

When running away, the Santa Rosa High School teacher explained, a zig-zag pattern will greatly reduce your chance of being struck by a bullet. And if immediately confronted with a gunman, your best chance at living is to fight.

The abrupt change in Brennan’s lesson plan came Wednesday, after students discovered graffiti scrawled in a girl’s bathroom threatening that Santa Rosa High School would be “shot up” Thursday afternoon.

Police found the threat to be unsubstantiated, but it was the second time in as many days that a threat of violence was found in a Sonoma County high school bathroom. On Wednesday, a 16-year-old student was arrested on suspicion of making a similar threat on bathroom wall at Analy High School.

Two weeks after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, threats of violence at Sonoma County schools have parents, students and school staff in a heightened state of anxiety. The fear that school shootings are not only possible in the United States but inevitable, perhaps even here, has gripped local parents and students.

More absentees

On Thursday, a significant number of Santa Rosa High parents decided to keep their kids home, some of them unsure whether the threat had been adequately investigated. Those who did go to school Thursday said there was a visible drop in attendance. Some classrooms were only partially full, and the hallways weren’t as packed as usual between classes.

Lillian Ernst, 16, a Santa Rosa High sophomore, actually went to campus in the morning but decided to go home when she realized how many students were missing. She knew about the threat from the previous day and second-guessed her decision to go to school. She wondered “Maybe I wasn’t scared enough.”

“I decided I was going to call my mother and tell her, because the school was practically empty,” she said, adding that “fear started building in my heart and if something were to happen there would be fewer people there to work together and support each other.”

Ernst said she feels like she’s lost some control of her life, “like we don’t have a choice any more, like we have to be scared of these things.”

On Thursday, the heightened anxiety within the community prompted a 30-minute lockdown at Piner High School. A concerned citizen called authorities to report a man, wearing a black trench coat and gas mask, was approaching campus with a rifle. It turned out to be a young man holding an umbrella and wearing a pair of headphones, the Santa Rosa Police Department said.

“I’m glad my kids are out of high school,” said Lt. John Snetsinger. “You can’t go around worrying about it, but people need to have their eyes opened to what’s going on around them. ... I don’t want to see us get numb to it ... but I think some people have, unfortunately. It’s become a norm in society.”

It’s not the first time Brennan, the Santa Rosa High teacher, has had to think about what would happen in his classroom if an active shooter came to campus. A similar threat found in a bathroom last year prompted the same thought process, and a plan for what students should do in case a gunman made it through his locked classroom door.

“I tell them the best thing that you can do is, anything you’ve got in your hands - your books, your pencils, your coffee cups - you throw it at them and you scream and that will give me the distraction that I need to tackle them,” he said. “Now, I’m probably going to die in that process, but it gives us a fighting chance because taking down the shooter in that situation will keep (the students) alive.”

Create ‘sense of safety’

Adrienne Heinz, a research scientist at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System, said it is unrealistic to expect students, parents and teachers to carry on as usual in an environment of heightened fear and “hope it doesn’t happen at your school.”

“We need to create a sense of safety for these kids,” she said. “Part of how to create safety is, you create a space for kids to have these dialogues. They need to have these feelings validated and heard and acknowledged. And through that it gives them a place to grapple with this really difficult time we’re in. That’s really key to cultivating safety.”

For Brennan’s fifth-period students, Wednesday afternoon started out just like any other.

Fresh from their lunch break at Santa Rosa High School, students settled in ahead of the 12:57 p.m. bell - 27 sophomores seated at individual desks, one half of the students facing the other half.

The day before, the class finished watching “Swing Kids,” a movie about a group of children in Nazi Germany that tied into the class’s curriculum about dictators. On Wednesday, Brennan wanted to talk about the movie, and what he expected from his students on their follow-up assignment.

But that plan was interrupted about five minutes into class, when the voice of Principal Brad Coscarelli came over the speaker system, asking all teachers to check their email immediately.

“One thing I know about students is, right off the bat in a situation like that, they actually have more information than I do,” Brennan said in an interview Thursday.

Almost instantly, he said, a student asked whether the announcement was about the graffiti students found scrawled in a bathroom, which warned the school would be “shot up” on Thursday. That’s what the announcement was about.

“I tried to assure them, based on what I saw, that most shooters don’t actually put it out like that (in a warning) because otherwise they make the environment too hard to come in and attack,” Brennan said. “But then of course, inevitably, the conversation turns into what do you do if it actually happens.”

These conversations in the classroom and at the dinner table have become more and more commonplace, even as some students and parents resist what some are calling the new norm.

Constant stress

Kaitlyn Kline, 17, a Santa Rosa High senior, said she felt the same fear and anxiety that many other parents and students are now feeling. However, Kline said she decided to attend school Thursday because she did not want to give into that fear.

“I came to school because I didn’t want to be controlled by someone else’s threat,” she said, adding she felt confident that school officials and police had investigated the matter.

But like other students, Kline said school shootings and threats of violence, whether real or not, are taxing.

Kline echoed a growing sentiment among students her age that such fear and anxiety have no place in schools. She said that if adults can’t make schools safer, in a few years she and other youth will.

“It’s emotionally stressful,” she said. “We’ve watched so many of these shootings and there’s been nothing done about them. ... The people affected the most by the recent shooting have kind of had enough.”

Growing movement

Since the beginning of 2018, guns have been discharged on school campuses 17 times in the United States, according to the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, a nonprofit that collects data on gun violence in America. The high-profile Feb. 14 shooting in Florida resulted in 17 deaths and prompted a national outcry led by the high school students who survived the gunman’s bullets.

The movement has resulted in a 17-minute nationwide school walkout planned for March 14 - one minute for each person killed - as a protest and call to Congress to “pass legislation to keep us safe from gun violence at our schools, on our streets and in our homes and places of worship,” according to the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER organizing website.

Kline said she didn’t plan on walking out of school on March 14 because she was “not a fan” of school walkouts. But she said she was willing to participate in other efforts to make schools safer and address fear and anxiety on campus. Ernst, who is on the debate team at school, said she was planning to participate in the national walkout.

“There’s no more choice about whether or not we say anything, because there’s now always the possibility that our school is not safe,” Ernst said.

She said that social media has given her and other students a platform to address the issue of gun violence and school safety and ultimately their own feelings of fear.

“The survivors of the Parkland shooting, their voices have traveled so far because of the platform social media has given them,” she said. “It’s an equal footing that says the politicians aren’t the only ones that get to say something about.”

Contentious topic

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, is advocating for students to find different ways to participate in the walkout, organizing community-building activities on campus during the same period of time, said Superintendent Diann Kitamura.

“They’re using it as a way to educate and understand (students’) fears, their questions, talk about what happened,” she said. “These are real feelings that our community, students and staff have, so how do we as a community - outside of school and inside of it - best address the questions, concerns and fears that are very natural during this very tumultuous time?”

Brennan said his choice to be upfront with students about active shooter situations is a contentious topic within the district, but he would rather they be prepared.

“I think that it’s horrible that we’re having to have these conversations and these things are continuing to happen,” he said. “But I’m disappointed that we’re not always having good fruitful productive conversations about what we should do.”

Despite an increased police presence at Santa Rosa High School on Thursday, school attendance dropped dramatically, said secretary Amber Oden.

Several parents told The Press Democrat they kept their kids home because they were being cautious. One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, complained that school administration and police had not adequately addressed a student who had recently posted threatening images on social media. Another parent, who also requested anonymity, said she was keeping her child home Thursday and Friday until police apprehended the person responsible for the threat.

“As school officials noted, it may be a hoax, but in the interest of extreme precaution she will be at home until further details emerge,” the parent said.

Schoolwide numbers were unavailable, but just 19 of the 27 students in Brennan’s fifth-period class showed up Thursday, he said.

“The fear reinforces itself,” Brennan said. “The kids are a little freaked out. They go home, and it’s a parent’s instinct to protect their child at all costs, so they’re freaked out a little bit, especially if they feel there isn’t enough information.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or

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