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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Balboa Seeking Calm After the Storm

Education: School officials say the hit list was just a rumor and no student was ever in danger. But many parents believe reaction was justified.

April 29, 1999|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — It has been a week of anxious moments and frazzled nerves at Balboa Middle School.

Ever since word got out that two eighth-grade girls had been suspended for allegedly threatening their classmates, school officials have been working overtime to calm worried students and parents, and restore order to the east Ventura campus.

That was no easy task, especially in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., school massacre that left 15 people dead, including the two students who shot up Columbine High School before turning their guns on themselves.

The shooting spree may have taken place thousands of miles away, but for the last week Balboa Middle School has joined campuses across the nation rattled by the aftershock of that tragedy.

Anxious parents lit up the school's switchboard, wanting to know whether it was safe to send their children to school after learning of alleged threats made by the two girls to "shoot or kill" classmates the day after the Colorado shooting.

School administrators scrambled to separate fact from fiction, sifting through a flood of rumors, including one that one of the girls had developed a hit list of her enemies.

"My mom called to find out who was on the list," said 12-year-old Jessica Murphy, a sixth-grader at the school. "She was worried that what happened in Colorado would happen here."

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Truth is, school officials say there was never a hit list or any plan to harm students. In fact, officials now believe that no Balboa student was ever in danger.

Nevertheless, administrators have taken the alleged threats seriously. They have removed the two girls from school and--based on this and previous incidents--have recommended they not be allowed to return and they get emotional help in an off-campus setting.

School district officials say they have not yet decided what disciplinary actions to take against the two students, but are considering a variety of options including expulsion.

School officials also have set up a May 12 town hall meeting to address concerns and answer questions parents may have about safety and security on the 1,200-student campus, the largest of the four middle schools in the Ventura Unified School District.

Now, officials simply are waiting for the incident to run its course and the campus to return to normal.

"There should be no doubt that this campus is as safe now as it ever was," said Assistant Principal Lane Jackson, who has worked late into the night over the past week to update parents, police officers and school leaders on the incident.

"We've gotten calls and visits from a lot of concerned parents and I think they have a right to be concerned," he said. "Things are much calmer but that's because we took quick action. What happened here is important and it's serious but I would not trade shoes with anyone in Colorado."

In fact, given what happened in Colorado, many Balboa parents say they are not surprised that the incident at the Ventura campus stirred such strong reaction.

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It's true, some parents say, that it could be construed as an overreaction. But those same parents are quick to point out that they would rather have an overreaction than no reaction at all.

"We didn't have a Columbine but we might have had the potential," said Mary Lynn Evans, president of Balboa's PTA and the mother of a seventh-grade student. "I think parents now have a heightened sense of awareness: It's like the claws come out and we want to protect our young. But to me, if they get excited that just tells me they are concerned for their children."

Even before the frantic phone calls started rolling in, it was already a stressful time at the middle school campus.

Students this week are taking the state-mandated Stanford 9 tests designed to measure their aptitude in a variety of basic skills.

Add to that the cranking up of the rumor mill after the Colorado shooting and the middle school campus was definitely out of kilter for a few days.

"This school has been crazy, all the students have been talking about it," 14-year-old Alicia Valencia said of the suspensions. Her mother woke her up early Tuesday morning to discuss the incident after reading about it in the newspaper.

"She wanted to know what was the list and whether I was on it," the eighth-grader said. "It's kind of scary to think that this kind of thing could happen to our school."

But eighth-grade student Jazmin Escobar, 13, said she thought the whole thing had been blown out of proportion because of what happened in Colorado.

"If this happened a few weeks ago, nobody would have given it a second thought, nobody would have cared," she said. "It's just because of the Columbine incident that people are paying attention."

But Jack Richards, a Balboa parent and Ventura police officer, said he believes the school would have responded quickly and decisively to any report of a threat regardless of whether the Colorado shooting ever took place.

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