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Rumors sweep O.C. schools in wake of Conn. shootings
By SCOTT MARTINDALE



Schools across Orange County have reported receiving a flurry of tips and rumors this week about possible violence against students – a phenomenon that officials attribute to heightened sensitivity after the Connecticut school mass killing coupled with nebulous predictions of a doomsday scenario Friday.

None of the rumors has been substantiated by authorities, and in many cases, the information has been so vague and distorted through hearsay and innuendo that authorities have had a hard time discerning whether an actual threat was made, school officials say.

"The combination of Connecticut along with the publicity of the Mayan calendar makes it impossible to determine what is the root of all these rumors," said Don Austin, assistant superintendent for educational services for the Huntington Beach Union High School District. "Either of these things in isolation would have increased parents' apprehension of student safety, but the two so close? It's almost a perfect storm."

The ancient Mayan calendar ends a 5,125-year cycle Friday, which some theorists have suggested indicates the end of the world.

At Dana Point's Dana Hills High School, authorities were still working Thursday to understand what led a student to post on Facebook that he wouldn't be coming to school Friday because he "did not want to get shot," said Julie Hatchel, assistant superintendent for education for the Capistrano Unified School District.

Authorities quickly determined there was no credible threat to the high school, Hatchel said, although the post spread like wildfire on social media and through word of mouth, with some interpreting it as a threat against their school. Other students added their own "inappropriate responses" to the post, further fueling the frenzy, Hatchel said.

"There were a lot of interpretations of the posting which then caused concern," Hatchel said. "It's our job to get to the bottom of what was posted and make sure there is no credible threat to students."

Other Capistrano schools reported dealing with similar rumors this week, Hatchel said.

In Michigan, more than 30 schools were closed Thursday and Friday because of rampant, unsubstantiated rumors about "potential threats of violence against students" at Lapeer County schools.

"Although we in the county are reluctant to cancel school because the rumors are unsubstantiated, we feel it is the most appropriate decision given the gravity of recent events and our present circumstances," Superintendent Matt Wandrie said in a statement on the school district's website.

Orange County authorities said no specific, credible threats have been made against local schools, although each tip is being treated as if it were real.

Authorities also insist they're not overreacting, saying they're investigating each tip in the same methodical fashion that they did before Dec. 14.

The main difference now, officials say, is that many more parents and students are coming forward to report their concerns.

Also, law enforcement personnel have been stepping up patrols and visibility around school campuses, which may be further heightening awareness, officials say.

"The positive side is that it sounds like kids are talking to their parents and then those parents are communicating that information with the schools," said Tammy Blakely, a spokeswoman for the Saddleback Valley Unified School District.

This week, Blakely said, Saddleback investigated tips originating from at least three schools – Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo, and Serrano Intermediate and El Toro High in Lake Forest. The rumors, all nebulous and unsubstantiated, suggested everything from a school doomsday scenario tied to the Mayan calendar, to classes being canceled Friday in anticipation of that scenario, Blakely said.

"There's nothing credible or valid," said Blakely, adding that schools would be in session on Friday. "But we're trying to take every precaution. Everyone is on edge."

In the Huntington Beach Union High School District, general uneasiness turned to concrete fears this week, after an 18-year-old student was arrested and charged with threatening to detonate a bomb at Huntington Beach High School. Christopher Michael Casey was accused of leaving a threatening note on a teacher's desk, just hours after the Connecticut school shooting.

Austin said authorities had no evidence the note was directly tied to the Connecticut shootings. Still, officials wasted no time communicating what they knew to parents.

"The expectations of parents may have changed since the Connecticut shooting, although our way of doing business has always been to get out the information as soon as we can," Austin said.

This week, officials said they have been particularly vigilant about nipping rumors in the bud, before they spiral out of control.

In the Santa Ana Unified School District, the Lorin Griset Academy alternative school this week rescheduled a safety drill that was to take place Friday, fueling speculation among students that the drill was being delayed because of a real threat against the school, said district spokeswoman Deidra Powell.

A Griset administrator contacted parents Wednesday to reassure them the drill was not being delayed because of any credible threats, Powell said.

"It will be rescheduled when students return from break," Powell said. "We're taking everything seriously."

Contact the writer: 714-796-7802 or smartindale@ocregister.com or Twitter: @MartindaleScott






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