Threat at Los Banos school deemed ‘not credible’ by police. Fearful parents rush to school

A message on the Los Banos Junior High School’s anonymous tipster line on Tuesday claimed there was going to be a school shooting later during lunch on Friday, police said.

The message included a first name for the possible shooter, Los Banos Police Cmdr. Jason Hedden said. School officials immediately notified the Los Banos Police Department, and officers investigated the possible threat, pulling in a student with the same first name for questioning.

“The kid said he didn’t know what they were talking about,” Hedden said. “He volunteered (the information) that all he had was a little toy fake gun; it didn’t even look like a real gun. ... He never pulled it out or threatened anyone.”

After an investigation that involved up to four police officers on campus at a time, the threat was deemed not credible, Hedden said.

But investigators and school officials weren’t aware that a different version of events was quickly spreading across social media during the day.

By 11 a.m., hours before the police department and school district notified the public, a line of worried parents stretched out the doors of the junior high school, seeking to pull their kids out.

Social media, school and police officials said, along with the national concerns on school and mass shootings, created a swift blanket of fear over parents, many whom were receiving frantic texts from their children at school earlier in the day.

“This whole country is paranoid about school shootings,” said Yong Kim, who received a message from his wife that their eighth grade daughter told her there was going to be a school shooting at lunch.

Kim said he called the police department, which told him the threat was not credible. He was satisfied, but his wife wasn’t. So she went to the school and took their daughter out.

“These kids are terrified,” Kim said, noting his daughter said she was scared as she sat with a police officer when she was picked up.

Cerelia Gauna-Vultao said her 12-year-old daughter was nervous and asked some eighth graders what they should do in case of a school shooting.

“She was saying, ‘How do I protect younger siblings; how do I explain to my 3-year-old brother why I’m at home right now?’” Gauna-Vultao said. “It’s heartbreaking for her to have to think that way. This is what they see and hear in the news.”

When parents get a fearful message from their children about a school shooting, Gauna-Vultao said, many don’t know any other way to protect them than to remove them out of the situation.

Other students who stayed, parents said, didn’t go to lunch or ate somewhere else on campus out of fear.

“I think (the fear) has a lot to do with how the school handled it,” Gauna-Vultao said. “Parents became aware through social media, and the school didn’t send out a mass text, automatic phone call or anything of the sort before the first lunch period, when the threat was supposed to happen.”

Several officers responded to the threat, Hedden said, adding additional campus security was present throughout the day.

“I think the big takeaway is everyone panicked,” Hedden said. “It was driven by misinformation on social media. People should wait for information to come out from the PD or the school’s page.”

Hedden said a news release about the false threat was sent out after the Sun-Star contacted the police department asking for comment regarding rumors circulating on social media.

Investigators had earlier in the day deemed the threat not credible. But they weren’t aware of the social media rumors that were quickly spreading, Hedden said, which is why a statement quashing the rumors were delayed.

“When this information comes in, it has to be vetted; we have to get it right,” Hedden said, before any official statement comes out. Although, communication to residents would have been immediate if the threat was credible.

Los Banos Unified School District Superintendent Mark Marshall said an immediate message didn’t go out to parents because, like police, the school district needed to determine all the facts.

“At this point in this climate, we have to take everything seriously,” Marshall said. “People want information quickly, but that information also has to be accurate. When you rush, you can give erroneous information.”

The school district released its statement about the false threat around the same time as the police department, after the stream of parents lined up outside the school.

Social media also swelled with rumors that were untrue, school officials said.

Several parents told the Sun-Star their children were scared but didn’t want to leave class because they feared or were told they would receive an unexcused absence or a hit to their grades.

Those allegations were not true, Los Banos Junior High Principal Deo Brasil said.

“We were supportive and understanding of parents’ desire,” Marshall said. “We respected the decisions parents make on behalf of their children.”

There were seven active-shooter attacks at schools nationwide last year — the most of any year since 1970, according to a database compiled by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

That includes the multiple fatalities from school shootings in Benton, Kentucky, Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas.

The spate of shootings led to mass protests that added fire to already widespread discussions about gun violence, mental health and school safety across the country.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.