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EL CAJON SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Threats Spread Like Wildfire on the Web

Violence: Officials say chat rooms and e-mail have sent the rumor mill into overdrive, resulting in several arrests. Schools seek to curb influence.

March 23, 2001|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Threats of campus violence have spread fast and furious since the Santana High School shootings and may spike again in the wake of Thursday's shootings at Granite Hills High, experts say.

Spread by word of mouth or via e-mail, threats began shortly after the March 5 shootings in Santee, including one Internet message that a student would finish the job allegedly started by 15-year-old Charles Andrew "Andy" Williams. Each rumor, in turn, has prompted more rumors. This has been the pattern after school shootings nationwide, but the rumor mill has gone into overdrive with use of the Internet.

In Orange County, law enforcement officials have investigated more than 70 rumors or threats of campus violence, including one Monday that led to the arrest of a 20-year-old whose vow to target Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach prompted nearly 60% of students to miss class.

In Ventura County, five rumors of school violence have spread via the Internet since Santee. In one case, 300 students stayed home from Rio Mesa High School in Ventura after word spread among students of an impending attack on the school. Similar rumors in the San Fernando Valley have kept students from school.

The proximity of the Santee campus shooting left Southern California schools especially vulnerable to rumors and threats, experts say, but a smattering of schools nationwide have struggled with the problem.

The majority of rumors turned out to be just that, but Thursday's shooting may serve to reaffirm anxiety and fears, experts said.

"You're going to have more and more threats, more rumors," said Wolfgang Halbig, executive director of the Florida-based National Institute for School and Workplace Safety. "I think it's the lull before the storm."

In response to the flurry of rumors, the Capistrano Unified School District in south Orange County took the unusual step of adding a page to its Web site to debunk disruptive rumors. It was scheduled to be unveiled today, but was rushed onto the World Wide Web just minutes after the El Cajon shootings, district Supt. James Fleming said.

"Our message at this time is, 'Help us keep hysteria down. It's moments like this that hysteria rears its ugly head,' " said Fleming.

Many school officials have been startled to learn in recent days how the Internet's role in such threats has grown.

"The accessibility of all this [technology] has grown since Columbine, and it sets the stage for this," said Frank Manzo, principal of Laguna Hills High School.

Orange County schools appear to be especially hard hit in the wake of the Santee shooting.

One such incident cost the Capistrano school district dearly: It stands to lose $46,000 in attendance funds after nearly 2,000 youths stayed home March 12 amid rumors that a student was bringing a gun to campus.

The Capistrano district has investigated 22 rumors since the Santee shootings and found that many originated on the Internet.

In Irvine, police have kept busy investigating more than a dozen rumors of threats, some of which originated with students' postings on Internet chat rooms, said Lt. Sam Allevato. A scattering of Los Angeles schools have had scares that disrupted attendance. A 10th-grader at Birmingham High School was arrested last week after posting an Internet threat to kill 75 classmates Monday.

At the arraignment, his attorney said the boy was a victim of mass hysteria over Internet postings.

A 10-member staff for lausd.net, the Internet site for the Los Angeles Unified School District, spends at least part of its workday "spot monitoring" Web sites and chat rooms frequented by students.

Other districts, meanwhile, block chat room access from campus computers, or shut down Web sites where rumors flourish. That's what officials did in the wake of the scare Monday at Ocean View High after a 20-year-old man posted an Internet threat.

"This is just the beginning," said Halbig, of the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety. "The Internet grows by leaps and bounds," he said. "And we better have the procedures in place to deal with it."

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Times staff writers Massie Ritsch and Timothy Hughes contributed to this story.

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