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.
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.