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Merced County schools on edge over bogus threat reports, officials say

On the same day Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz was indicted on 17 counts of murder, authorities in Merced and Atwater were scrambling to investigate what they said turned out to bogus threats and bad rumors that scared students and parents.

School districts, parents and students in Merced County have been "hypersensitive" when it comes to school safety, potential threats, warning signs and reporting since the Parkland shooting, said Steve Tietjen, the Merced County superintendent of schools.

The debates and discussions surrounding school safety and shootings has led school districts to take closer looks at their safety plans, Tietjen said.

A new requirement by the State Board of Education requires school districts to have safety plans approved by their governing boards by next March. But Tietjen said several school districts in Merced County have already started hiring contractors to assess safety needs.

"Personally, I would rather have a report from a concerned person and it not being (credible) rather than a tragedy," Tietjen said.

Three separate alleged threats to El Capitan and Golden Valley high schools on Tuesday were mischaracterized on social media, according to an emailed statement from the Merced Union High School District.

School officials sent messages Tuesday and Wednesday morning that the threats were investigated at the Merced high schools and found they weren't credible. The discussion of those threats Wednesday led to the investigation of another threat that occurred months ago at Atwater High School, according to the Merced Union High School District.

But El Capitan students remained on edge Wednesday, some choosing to stay home despite announcements and messages to families from school administration that explained there were no credible threats.

District officials said three high schools saw fewer students in attendance Wednesday and they have received numerous inquiries from parents about the rumors.

"We understand that parents will (err) on the side of caution and keep their children home when rumors alleging a possible threat are circulated," Superintendent Alan Peterson said. "We want to alleviate any concerns from parents and assure them that the matter has been fully investigated and concluded."

The fear at El Capitan High apparently sparked about a week after students found writing on a desk stating "Everyone is dying in 7 days!!.” Students, viewing it as a joke, took a photo and shared it with a student group, according to the MUHSD statement.

"There was no concern over it at that time, as the school didn't have knowledge of the picture until Tuesday," officials said in the statement.

Then, on Tuesday, rumors surfaced of an email alleging threats to the school, according to the statement, which noted no such email was received at any of the high schools.

"This became the basis for the picture of the writing on the desk resurfacing, prompting students to think that there may be a credible threat," according to the statement.

After an investigation by the Merced Police Department and the school administration, it was determined the picture and email were not related, and students perpetuated the rumors without malicious intent, according to the district.

Merced Police Lt. Jay Struble corroborated the school district's statement and said there was no direct threat to El Capitan High School.

"We've got to look at if there is a direct threat," Struble said, noting that the "Everyone is dying in 7 days" statement written on the desk could mean a wide range of things.

"This is too open ended to be a direct threat to anyone," Struble said.

Another alleged threat to Golden Valley High School on Feb. 23 that was investigated and deemed not credible also resurfaced Tuesday, Struble said.

"All the information was looked into and nothing was substantiated," Struble said. "Parents should send their kids to school."

School district officials said authorities were looking into an alleged threat that may have occurred in November involving Atwater High School but just came to the district's attention Wednesday. But there was no immediate threat or danger to the school, Atwater Police Officer Anthony Cardoza said.

"The student resource officer is investigating, and all we have right now is that some students spoken to had used Twitter to comment that El Capitan (High) was possibly involved in a school-shooting threat," Cardoza said. "We can't find any real source anywhere."

Police and school officials in Merced and Atwater are urging concerned parents to contact the schools directly.

Within the last month, at least four other people have been arrested for making threats to Merced County schools, according to Sun-Star archives. On Friday, a 13-year-old boy was arrested for making terrorist threats against Le Grand Elementary school, according to investigators.

A Merced College student surrendered to police on Feb. 25 after making unspecified threats on social media, police said, though his post mentioned the college. Freddy Matzuy, 34, of Merced, was arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats.

On Feb. 21, Carlos Garcia Aguilar, 29, of Winton, was arrested after he threatened to open fire at a school, the Merced County Sheriff's Office reported. Aguilar allegedly posted videos on social media making the threats but did not specify which school.

On Feb. 16, a 19-year-old former Gustine High School student was arrested after posting a photo of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz with comments investigators described as threatening, according to Gustine police. He was previously convicted of threatening a school officer or employee, according to court records.

A Chowchilla student was arrested Tuesday in connection with an alleged threat made against Chowchilla High School, police said.

According to Modesto Bee archives, there have been at least three investigations into school threats in Stanislaus County within the last month. On Tuesday the Modesto police were looking into a threat made on a nationwide crisis line involving Mark Twain Junior High School. The threat was said to be against bullies at the school and security at the school was ramped up.

On March 1, a 16-year-old former Gregori High student was arrested in the schools lot for having a rifle in his car, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department reported. Police said he did not make threats against the school, student or staff. He was arrested and charged with being a dismissed student disrupting school operations, unauthorized entry onto school grounds, possession of a firearm in school zone and possession of ammunition on school grounds.

In Fresno County there have been at least six investigations into threats against schools, according to Fresno Bee archives. The two latest were reported last week.

On March 1, a bus driver heard a 13-year-old boy threaten to shoot up a school, the Bee reported. The bus driver reported it to police and the teenager was arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats.