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After high school bomb scare in Petaluma, parents demand answers

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Anyone with information related to the bomb threat at Casa Grande High School is asked to call Petaluma police at 707-778-4372. Those seeking to speak with a school counselor should call 707-778-4959.

Parents and staff at Casa Grande High School are demanding answers after a bomb threat at the east Petaluma campus, saying that school leaders bungled communication about the potential risk to students.

Police and school officials first learned of a threat targeting the Casa Grande lunchroom shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday, police said. The communication, which came via an anonymous reporting app, warned of an attack at 12:15 p.m. Thursday — at the start of lunch, school officials confirmed.

Despite heavy police presence early Thursday, Casa Grande parents, students and staff weren’t informed of the potential attack until mid-morning, long after some 1,600 students had filtered past police cruisers and into their morning classes.

“An incident like this occurred and they did not notify students or parents until the day the incident was threatened to be occurring is mind-boggling,” said Beth Hughes, who has a junior student at Casa Grande. “How can they claim that our children’s safety was their top priority?”

Matthew Harris, the first-year superintendent of Petaluma City Schools, the city’s second-largest school district, said Petaluma police and school leaders did not believe the threat was credible. But Harris acknowledged communication missteps, adding that he led a full debriefing with Casa Grande administrators at the the close of the school day.

“I think we learned from this event,” Harris said. “Given the information we have now, we could have done a better job communicating this out to the community.”

Casa Grande leaders chose to continue school, and Principal Dan Ostermann confirmed the bomb threat in an 11 a.m. email to the school community and in an announcement to students and staff over the school’s public address system, students said. In the email, Ostermann promised to remain vigilant, and to continue working with law enforcement to ensure the school was safe.

By noon, police had secured portions of the school, deploying at least one CHP bomb-sniffing dog, Harris said. There were no evacuations or lockdowns, Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said.

But the decision to keep school in session — and the delayed communication — prompted a wave of pushback as students and parents sought answers about school leaders’ decision-making surrounding the threat.

“I’m shocked they found out yesterday and only let us know this morning,” Casa Grande student Aurora Demo said in a post to the popular I Love Petaluma! Facebook page.

Harris said a number of factors led police to question the credibility of the threat, including a rash of similar false reports at surrounding schools in preceding weeks.

The threat also came the same day a freshman class of 80 physical education students was introduced to the anti-bullying app, STOPit, the same app used to anonymously report the bomb threat.

“That was odd,” Harris said. “You roll out the app, and that evening you get this bomb threat.”

Harris said police told school officials it was OK to continue classes Thursday, but promised a bolstered police presence.

“If there was a shred of doubt that there was a concern or possibility that a student was going to get hurt, we would have acted in a very different way,” Harris said.

At lunchtime, while some Casa Grande students gathered with their friends, others met arriving parents in the front parking lot, where a half-dozen police cars sat parked.

Aingel Lopez, 15, was in his first period biology class when he heard about the threat. He said it didn’t bother him too much.

“Kids think they’re funny by making threats and stuff like that,” Lopez said. “So I’m not really fazed.”

Neither Harris nor Lyons could say whether police conducted a search of the site before school began Thursday, and Lyons said he couldn’t reveal all of the department’s investigation techniques amid the ongoing investigation.

But the dearth of information has flummoxed students, parents and staff at the school, prompting an ongoing push for answers.

As news of the bomb threat trickled out, and parents rushed to pull their students out of school, kitchen manager Sue Nutter and her staff were told they couldn’t serve lunch in the kitchen, but they weren’t told why.

“It wasn’t until after lunch that we got an email from the superintendent saying that the bomb was allegedly in the cafeteria, and that it was due to go off during lunch,” Nutter said. “We should have been notified or at least given the choice to come into work.”

School officials on Thursday evening announced a Gaucho Parent Roundtable, set for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, to collect feedback and provide more information.

Harris called the threat “unacceptable behavior,” and urged students to come forward with any information. He promised discipline if the person responsible for the threat is found, and requested understanding from the school community in the wake of the bomb scare.

“I think we’ve learned some valuable lessons today,” Harris said. “Now is the time for a little extra care and grace … We’re all on the same team. We all want what’s best for students.”

Press Democrat Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report.

More information

Anyone with information related to the bomb threat at Casa Grande High School is asked to call Petaluma police at 707-778-4372. Those seeking to speak with a school counselor should call 707-778-4959.

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