Families, police respond to latest threat of violence at Petaluma High School

Menacing messages, including threats of mass shooting and rape, appeared in the shared Google doc during class.|

At least six police officers were at Petaluma High School on Wednesday, and additional staff members were brought in by the district, all in response to the latest reported threat of violence on a Sonoma County school campus.

Attendance at the high school was down “noticeably” Wednesday, according to Maité Iturri, assistant superintendent at Petaluma City Schools.

“We can confidently say many of the absences are due to the current threat,” Iturri added.

It came Tuesday in a string of messages posted in a shared Google Doc in class, said Petaluma police Lt. Garrett Glaviano.

One message was a threat of sexual assault directed at a student, according to police. Another, copied and pasted multiple times in the shared document, threatened use of an assault rifle on campus Wednesday.

The shared document was being displayed in a livestream on a class monitor and student laptops at the time, and as it was being viewed, anonymous users began editing the document and adding inappropriate comments, Glaviano said.

It was in a freshmen Spanish class, according to students who spoke with the Petaluma Argus-Courier on condition of anonymity.

The Argus-Courier reviewed student photographs of the threatening messages, which included pornography, racial slurs and a list of student names topped with the words “hit list,” according to student photographs.

The threat of sexual violence was directed at a female student, the photos showed.

The Google Doc was accessible to anyone who had its link and did not require names or credentials, police said.

Police said they could not determine how credible the threats were, but said they took them seriously “out of an abundance of caution.”

“The comments made throughout the livestream were random and it appeared the authors were attempting to top the previous one in terms of shock value,” police wrote in a Nixle alert Tuesday night.

Most of the comments did not seem connected to the two threats, Glaviano said.

“We continue to investigate the legitimacy of the threats made and so far, we have not discovered any evidence to support its validity,” Superintendent Matthew Harris said in a Wednesday statement emailed to parents.

Still, Wednesday was another difficult day for administrators, teachers, parents and students grappling with an ongoing epidemic of threats, violence and other corrosive behavior in local schools.

School officials notified police around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday about the shared document, followed by a second notice later in the evening. The Petaluma Police Department sent out a public notice over Nixle about the threat at 8:54 p.m. Tuesday.

Overnight into Wednesday morning, Petaluma High School families said they dwelled on the news and how to respond.

Many apparently opted to skip school for the day.

For parent Michael Day Williams, the decision was especially fraught: His ninth-grade son was in the class that received the threatening messages, and his son’s name was included on the “hit list,” he said.

Skipping school might have been an easier decision, except that his son plays for the Trojans baseball team – and if he and other players didn’t go to school that day, they couldn’t play in the scheduled afternoon game.

One by one, Williams said, the baseball team’s boys decided to attend school so that they could play in their home game against Cardinal Newman.

“They all bravely, in quick succession, said, ‘We’re going to school,’” Williams recalled, describing it as “A pretty dramatic moment at 7:30 in the morning.”

Iturri, the assistant superintendent, described the additional staff presence Wednesday, which included on site mental health care providers.

The response came as the county continues to grapple with a series of campus incidents, including the fatal March 1 stabbing of a 16-year-old Montgomery High student.

Williams, who has a background as a mental health counselor, reiterated an observation made by numerous school administrators of late, touching on mental health: Young people are in pain, he said.

“This mindset is seeping in,” he said, that “it’s OK to hate on other people, it’s OK to joke around about violence, it’s OK to be misogynistic.”

Kids today, especially boys, are “surrounded by this ideology,” he said.

“This is a societal problem. It goes beyond our town. And I’m sitting here watching our town kind of fraying at the edges.”

Regarding specific incidents like Tuesday’s, Iturri said, “We are in many ways in uncharted waters, at least here in Petaluma, and our response is to work closely with our partners in mental health, law enforcement, parents/caregivers, students and staff.

“The current environment nationally with school safety is a big topic that we strive to get right, and we believe communication is a big part of the solution,” she said.

Williams agreed on the need for communication – including honest dialogue, even if it’s painful.

“Let’s talk about what’s really happening here and what’s happening to our kids right before our very eyes. This isn’t normal.”

Press Democrat Staff Writer Madison Smalstig contributed to this story. Don Frances is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at don.frances@arguscourier.com.

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