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Undersheriff Chad Hermann and District Attorney David Hollister listen to concerns and questions from parents during the community meeting held May 18. Photo by Lauren Westmoreland

Officials address lockdown situation during Portola community meeting

By Lauren Westmoreland

The meeting followed a stressful day on May 17, when CRC received a threat that subsequently led to the lockdown of both the elementary school and the high school in Portola.

Plumas Unified School District Superintendent Bill Roderick shares his gratitude for the quick response of local law enforcement during a community meeting held at C. Roy Carmichael Elementary School in Portola on Thursday, May 18. Photo by Lauren Westmoreland

Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) Superintendent Bill Roderick opened the community meeting welcoming all of the families that were in attendance in the CRC gym to discuss the events of the day prior, with Plumas County District Attorney Dave Hollister and Plumas County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Chad Hermann to speak as well.

“I want to preface this up front —please don’t be upset that there are certain questions we will not be able to answer,” Roderick said, explaining that this was due to the fact that there is still an open investigation going on and because the situation involves a juvenile.

“I’m going to start with the school’s perspective,” Roderick said and thanked law enforcement and all of the area agencies for their prompt and vigorous response, noting that there were units at the school in a very short period of time after the threat was received. “Within minutes or less of the threat being received we had a badge with a gun at the front of campus and teachers were locking down,” Roderick said. “When they say that it takes a village to educate kids in a small town, they also pull together when we need help. When I arrived here, I felt so relieved to see the response that we had.”

Roderick explained that the school has an emergency procedure they follow, and staff training teaches that a lockdown doesn’t prevent an incident from happening but reduces the number of casualties that you have. “The staff at CRC and PJSHS did an amazing job of getting the kids safe, secure and locked down,” he said. Roderick went on to note that the entire district runs ALICE training drills and added that more in-depth drills will be held in the future more often.

“Our job is to get the kids to safety- once law enforcement arrives, we take a step back,” Roderick said. Roderick then touched on the reunification process, and acknowledged that it did take a long time, but for good reason. “All cars were checked multiple times to ensure that kids were going to their parents safely,” Roderick noted. “We had three levels of security in place to get the kids back to you.”

It was also noted that information about the lockdown was sent out as quickly as possible to parents.

“In terms of what we were dealing with and the unknown, it went as good as it could have gone,” Roderick said. “We learned a lot and what we learned will make our process better to help keep our staff and students safe here on campus.”

PCSO Undersheriff Chad Hermann then spoke, noting that the previous day’s events had been “very traumatic.”

Herman then gave a timeline of events, starting with a call from the Veteran’s Administration at 7:47 a.m. stating that a homicidal person had texted the Veteran’s Crisis Line and were planning on specifically killing several people at C. Roy Carmichael. “They were very specific about this school,” Herman said. “The information besides that was very limited – we were able to obtain a phone number and a name that was not an actual name.”

Hermann went on to note that the V.A. Center was unable to immediately provide information, and that at 7:59 a.m. members of the department at PCSO had already begun to respond, with many arriving in less than 20 minutes from across the county. A CHP unit was stationed immediately in front of the school, and Hermann was on the phone with the school at 8:01 a.m. By 8:05 a.m., the school had been locked down and Herman requested the actual text message from the VA, which took 45 minutes to arrive due to needed approval by superiors.

“At 8:24, our first patrol units arrived on scene and began to set the perimeter, with responders scouring the campus to see if anything was out of place,” Herman reported.

An investigation began, working to pinpoint the source of the threat and location. An evacuation plan was developed for the children, which Herman acknowledged took time. “At 10:09 a.m. we were able to start the evacuation process,” Herman said. The evacuations went on until nearly 2 p.m. and then units were sent to safely evacuate Portola High School.

By 4 p.m., the source of the text message had been discovered and the threat addressed. “It is an ongoing investigation,” he added. “I am absolutely proud of the way our department and mutual aid responded to the call, how the teachers responded, and how the community came together. You guys did a great job — we were able to handle this process very efficiently in my eyes.”

District Attorney David Hollister then spoke briefly, opening with a round of applause for the spectacular work of CRC Principal Melissa Leal.

Hollister also emphasized that there were things that could not be discussed in the open investigation but confirmed that the threat originated from a student. “Yesterday was a very specific, serious threat that came across. I am happy to say in hindsight that nobody was in danger yesterday, but until that was verified, all of those officers with long guns were going to stay as long as it took,” Hollister said.

He went on to state that the community should be very proud of the school and community. “I had the occasion with a couple of detectives to talk to students during the lockdown — your kids were brave, they listened, they did what they were trained to do, and you have every reason to be proud. They did it right, and parents, thank you. I know there’s this parental drive to go in and get your kid. Thank you for not doing that.”

Hollister explained that in situations such as the one being discussed, there are officers responding from other counties, and if there were to be a parent attempting to push through the perimeter, it could be seen as the threat. Hollister said that school staff were incredibly helpful despite the chaos.

Hollister also noted that when the call came in it happened to be a training day for law enforcement officers, and that one person made it from Quincy to CRC in Portola in 17 minutes. “Every one of those officers was going to come in here and do whatever they had to do to keep your kids safe,” Hollister said. “I really want to let you know, the detectives’ division at PCSO were sensational- incredibly skilled and able to work through an incredibly chaotic scene.”

Parents were then able to pose questions, with one parent asking if the student will have consequences and if they will have access to guns in the future. “Every scenario like this- once the perpetrator is identified we ensure they don’t have access to weapons,” Hollister said.

One woman said that CRC staff had the school locked down in less than two minutes, and that as a mom she was proud and moved by the actions of the staff at CRC to another round of heartfelt applause.

Another woman said she had concerns with the verbiage from the school in terms of the messaging about returning to class on Thursday, and it was noted that the goal was to keep things “as normal as possible” at school by Roderick.

Another concern raised was whether children were allowed to have their phones on or off during a lockdown scenario at the school, and it was noted that the training given requested that phones be turned off, as some bombs can be triggered by a phone call from older cell phones.

“When we have an active shooter situation, it’s usually someone that isn’t targeting specific people, they are targeting an environment. When there’s a lot of noise coming from a classroom, it is a target,” Hermann said.

One mother asked why the school had taken her child that morning leading up to the lockdown, and Hermann responded that the lockdown had come in just moments after some children were dropped off. “Had the call come directly to us, we would have simultaneously locked up the school and notified law enforcement,” Roderick said.

It was also noted that PCSO had some difficulty getting through to the school on the phone initially. “There was a CHP officer already here monitoring the bus zone,” Leal said. “The lockdown was initiated at 8:02 a.m.”

“The biggest gap in communication was between the VA and us,” Hermann noted in response to another question about timing. Parents were informed that all communication issues have since been resolved.

Another parent raised concerns about bullying, and it was noted that schools take bullying very seriously, but that the incident had not been a direct result of a child being bullied.

A woman asked how children that were directly named in the threat were supposed to feel safe moving around the community, and Roderick explained that the school had certain thresholds that dictate when students are under the jurisdiction of the school. “If your children were part of this, keep them with you and if anything happens, they need to communicate with you and get law enforcement involved if you can,” Roderick responded.

“Tell them to get to an adult – not a perfect answer I know.”

“I don’t think this is a scenario with a person that actively wanted to harm other people,” Hollister said. Another parent asked what the school’s policy was for a student making a threat to this level. “It is an expellable offense and there is a due process,” Roderick responded.

One woman angrily asked why it wasn’t considered a terrorist threat and noted that she had a “vote of no confidence in the school” and would not be bringing her child back for the duration of the semester.

A parent asked what timeline would be for a ‘gap analysis’ and asked why the evacuation plan had changed during the day.

It was noted that the plan had changed based on the situation, and that it had been established that the school was the safest place for the kids to be for the reunification process. “There were calls in place by 4:30 p.m. yesterday for an after-action review,” Hermann added in response to the query about gap analysis. “This will be over the next two weeks.”

Another parent wanted to know why school wasn’t called for the day, as it was for snow days, due to the traumatic nature of the incident. Roderick responded that the children who needed more time before returning could have that, but that there were some students for whom school was their only safe place, with guaranteed meals and caring adults consistently available.

One mother asked how kids were supposed to feel safe returning to school, noting that her daughter had been locked down the day prior. Roderick answered that there were counselors available to assist students on campus, ready to give any needed support they are able to give. “It doesn’t matter what I say, it will be what you as a parent believe and have faith your administration and staff,” Roderick said. “Our school is open but I’m not going to tell you that you have to bring your kid right now- that is between you and your child and your comfort level. These events are traumatic. May 1, 1992- Lindhurst High School. It was my senior year, and there were four dead and nine injured. It still bothers me,” Roderick added. “I understand your anxiety to protect your babies, you should have that. Try to work towards trust- our primary focus is to ensure students feel safe. If they don’t feel safe, there is nothing we can do to teach your child.”

Roderick asked community members to act as partners with the school district and staff and stressed that PUSD was doing their best to ensure student safety.

It was emphasized that students complete a Digital Citizenship class at CRC, with a month spent on the topic each year, and parents were encouraged to dig into that information with their children. “We can’t do it alone,” Leal said.

CUTLINE

One thought on “Officials address lockdown situation during Portola community meeting

  • I’m glad to see some reasonable and responsible community communication and engagement, to help in restoration of some normalcy for the kids, while maintaining and addressing their safety and sense of security.

    The importance of noting that some children do not have enough of the latter in their lives can not be overstated, especially in these times.
    Any children who may already be distressed with the daily awareness that they are living in dangerous or hostile conditions often do not know which adults might be safe trusting. To trust the wrong adult may only increase their danger. So it is reassuring to see engaged community leaders who are not afraid to be the adults in the room.

    I can not know for sure, but I am thinking that promises of “Thoughts and Prayers” don’t mean $!_! to children designated as “collateral damage” for the selfishly stupid culture wars some have decided to direct nationally at our kids, teachers and schools.

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