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Joke about attack on school fuels panic

Diamond Bar principal's attempts to squelch rumor spread it instead.

December 15, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

What began as a student's joke about a gun at Diamond Bar High School quickly warped into an ominous warning of a Columbine-style attack -- complete with rumors of a hit list for a Friday pep rally -- spread by text messages, phone calls and the Internet.

And Principal Denis Paul's every effort to extinguish the growing rumor fueled it instead.

By Friday morning, staff estimated that as many as half of the school's 3,260 students were absent.

"A million of my friends called last night," senior Eileen Liao, 17, said as she left after attending classes. "People really panicked. It's like the telephone game where you tell someone something and it comes out all twisted."

The runaway rumor came in the wake of several high-profile mass shootings -- nine dead at a Nebraska mall, five killed at a religious retreat and church in Colorado, and six youths who were wounded as they got off a bus in Las Vegas.

Parents said those incidents made them believe the rumor could be true.

In more than two decades at the secure, well-maintained campus, Paul said, he had never seen a rumor grow so out of control. He spent more time trying to dispel the rumor than he did investigating the joke that started it all.

Paul said a male student, whom he called a "good kid," had been disciplined for making the comment but he declined to say how. (Sheriff's officials said Friday that the incident did not merit a criminal investigation.)

But a quick resolution proved elusive. With rumors already rampant by the time classes ended Thursday, Paul decided to cancel the Friday pep rally, figuring that students were too anxious. Instead of calming nerves, the cancellation fueled rumors that the school would be under attack.

Later that night, as students mingled on campus at a concert, color guard meeting and wrestling match, they began to exchange text messages. Soon, instant messages multiplied exponentially through Myspace.com, becoming what Paul called "the perfect storm" of gossip. He fielded calls from parents until 10:30 p.m. Thursday.

On Friday morning, hoping once again to reassure people, Paul asked sheriff's deputies to park in front of the school. But the sight of patrol cars had the opposite effect, persuading many parents that administrators were still investigating a threat. Paul said deputies told him they fielded more than 200 calls about a possible attack at the school. Administrators spent much of Friday on the phone or in meetings with worried parents who streamed through the main office.

Senior David An, 17, president of the student body, came to school Friday although his mother asked him to stay home. An, who hopes to attend UCLA next year, was nervous when he found his Advanced Placement classes half-empty, but said coming to school "felt like the right thing to do."

Nelson Huang, vice president of the Chinese American Parents Assn., heard the rumor Thursday night from his two children, both students at the school, and started getting calls from worried parents soon after. He called the principal and was satisfied the rumor was baseless.

When his children Nicole, 17, and Nicholas, 16, told him they were afraid, Huang said that as leaders of the Chinese American Student Assn., they had to trust the principal.

"It's very important to set an example that we know it's just a rumor," Huang said.

Huang sent both children to school Friday. But rumors were still swirling as he prepared for the associations' annual Christmas party, which he refused to cancel, at the school Friday night. Huang called to check on his daughter, just in case.

At about 10:40 a.m., Paul made a final effort to kill the story for good.

"Let me assure you," he said in a message sent out via the school's automated notification system, which reaches parents and students by phone and e-mail, "we have not found any guns or other weapons at Diamond Bar High School. While this rumor has grown and caused great anxiety among our students and parents, there is no evidence that there is any danger to our students."

That satisfied many parents, although some who kept their children home said they wished he had sent it out earlier.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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