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Nerves on edge on first school day after Connecticut tragedy

Parents and teachers face a delicate task as students return for what is usually a joyous holiday week. Threats of violence and hoaxes crop up around the country.

December 18, 2012|By Howard Blume and Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • An armed police officer talks to a woman outside Cambridge Elementary School in San Antonio. The campus and others in the district were locked down after a caller threatened to shoot students.
An armed police officer talks to a woman outside Cambridge Elementary School… (Eric Gay, Associated Press )

Parents and educators confronted a jittery Monday across Southern California and the nation on the first day of classes after last week's massacre of 20 first-graders and six others at a Connecticut elementary school.

There were threats, nearly all of them hoaxes, a heightened police presence and a surge of separation anxiety as thousands of schools forged into the last week before winter break, a time normally marked by holiday pageants and occasionally dicey winter weather.

A calm beginning at Cambridge Elementary in San Antonio turned frightful with a call from a man who said he was en route to the school to shoot students.

District administrator Dick Smith, on campus to offer emotional and practical support, grabbed the phone from the receptionist.

"The first words out of his mouth were that he was going to come into the school shooting," Smith said.

Staff immediately called 911 and placed the school on lockdown. Police and FBI agents swarmed the facility within minutes.

The threat was later deemed not credible, but authorities are investigating.

Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, and in Tucson increased patrols "to help alleviate the understandably high levels of anxiety," Fairfax Supt. Jack Dale said in a statement.

Tucson was the site of a January 2011 shooting rampage that killed six and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others.

In Los Angeles County, prosperous South Pasadena has a high-achieving school system in which violence is rare. But officials nonetheless fielded calls and emails from concerned parents.

An episode of school violence "brings the whole notion of school safety up to the highest in everybody's mind," said Supt. Joel Shapiro. "What's more extreme about this latest episode is that it involved very young children."

Plans already were underway to fence in the last two district schools that are not fully enclosed. Officials will now ask state officials to expedite construction approvals in the wake of the Connecticut shootings, said Shapiro.

South Pasadena parent Julie Giulioni recalls an unfenced elementary school where she learned to ride a bike and children played on weekends. She said she accepts that the world has changed and that precautions, such as fencing, are advisable. But she also said she has never felt that her daughter is unsafe at school.

"As a parent, you couldn't send your kid off to school every day if you were holding that possibility [of violence] close to you," she said.

School officials from coast to coast were sending reassurances by email, letter and phone, including in Palo Alto and New York City. A local charter school group, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, enclosed such a note in student report cards. That charter group, like L.A. Unified, began winter break Friday.

Schools in New York City tightened security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks there. Each school has a police officer stationed at the front desk, monitoring visitors.

Campus support nationwide Monday typically included counselors as well as security officers. In many cases, parents were the ones who needed help.

"If I was a little more clingy than normal, my son had to understand about how important he was to me," said Burbank parent David Dobson, whose eighth-grader attends Jordan Middle School.

Annette Fiol was part of a Burbank parent group that lobbied successfully for security upgrades, including entry buzzers, after a shooting at a Valley Jewish community center in 1999. The Connecticut rampage revived her concerns.

"This made me think of things that could happen more so than I normally think," said Fiol. Her seventh-grader, she said, "feels safe. He was sad but he did not feel it could happen at his school."

howard.blume@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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