Exeter Unified School District and the Exeter Police Department say “hit list” of names and shooting threat were completely false
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
EXETER – In the wake of one of the deadliest school shootings in history, violent threats on school campuses have escalated to the point where rumors are loaded with as much fear as the barrel of a gun.
Rumors about a “hit list” and a school shooting at Exeter Union High School (EUHS) ran rampant last week feeding a panic amongst the students that came to a head on Friday, Feb. 23. What started as an innocent warning from a parent ended up as a full-scale investigation by the Exeter Police Department. Without any suspect, weapons, documents or witnesses, the rumor mill led to a state of anxiety that caused nearly half of the students to leave school for the day prior to lunch.
To complicate matters further, the rumor spread without the aid of social media, primarily in direct contact between students via text messaging and word of mouth. In fact, social media didn’t play a role in the panic until after school administrators and the Exeter Police Department dispelled the myths at a schoolwide assembly.
Jackie Quintero, a senior at Exeter High School, was having a typical day on Feb. 23 listening to music while studying when she first heard the rumor of a student planning to shoot up the school during her second period class. That’s when she noticed her teacher get up, close the blinds, lock the door and begin taking things out of the cabinets “in case students needed to hide in them.”
Quintero said the teacher told her that she could not open a confidential email that was in response to recent rumors about a school shooting so the teacher began “preparing for the worst.” Principal Robert Mayo sent out the confidential email to teachers and staff prior to the assembly letting them know the rumors were not credible and that administrators, in cooperation with the police department, had been “determined to be a false threat,” according to a copy that was sent to the Sun-Gazette by an anonymous source.
Quintero said she didn’t think much of it until she noticed the hallways were emptier than normal on the way to her next class. When she arrived, the door to the class was locked and Quintero said she started to worry when students were slow to let her in. As students began speculating about the worst, a guidance counsellor came to the class and informed them to go to the gym for a schoolwide assembly. Quintero said she felt uneasy about having the whole school in one building with rumors of a student shooter.
“This is a really bad idea and something is going to happen,” she recalled saying to herself.
Quintero said she and other students began calling their parents to let them know what was happening and to come get them. Quintero said it was extremely tense in the gym as officers were posted at each exit, students were crying and teachers seemed nervous. She said parents were showing up and pulling their kids out of the assembly even before it began.
“My mom said if I didn’t feel safe then me and my brother should go home,” Quintero said.
At the assembly, Superintendent Tim Hire and Principal Robert Mayo reassured students, staff and some parents that they were safe on the EUHS campus and there was no evidence of a hit list or a shooter anywhere, including the vast network of student social media profiles.
“There is no hit list,” Hire emphasized at the assembly.
Fellow senior Candy Quesada said she gathered up her younger sisters during the assembly so that they could stick together and leave campus in case of a shooting. “I was preplanning the worst case scenario in my head, looking at the exits and figuring out an escape plan.”
Hire invited students who had more questions to stay after the assembly but over 400 students left for lunch and never returned to school on Friday. Hire said those that did stay questioned him, school resource officer Kyle Stark and Principal Mayo about how they handled the situation.
After the school day ended on Friday, social media posts began building on the rumors with false reports of police disarming a student at the assembly, the school being on lock down, and that students had actually seen a “hit list” of student names the shooter was targeting. Hire said the rumors were further complicated by posts regarding other Tulare County schools that had made arrests over the last two weeks as well as a story of an arrest in connection with a threat at a school in Exeter, New Hampshire, which mentions a rumor of a “hit list” at an “Exeter High School” and attributes information to the “Exeter Police Department.”
“This is a situation where there was something similar going on at a high school of the same name in a town with the same name at the same time,” Hire said. “But when someone is doing a quick search on the Internet they may not notice that this is information from all the way across the country.”
Several students called the Sun-Gazette’s office to anonymously voice their dissatisfaction with how the high school and district office handled the situation. “It was very poor planning and then they herded everyone into the gym for an assembly. That caused a panic. Students were crying and teachers were nervous.” One student asked why the administration couldn’t have sent out a message earlier in the week as soon as they knew the rumors were false.
Another student wanted to know why the student was merely suspended and not arrested and when he would be allowed back on campus? Others questioned why they weren’t notified of the rumors earlier in the week. “I could have been on that list and I feel like I have a right to know. We all had a right to know if we were in danger.”
Hire said the district took “appropriate disciplinary action” against the student identified as the origin of the rumor but could not comment further on any actions regarding a minor. He said he and other administrators were notified of the rumor earlier in the week when a student reported hearing the student say there was a “hit list.”
“There were never any threats, there was not a list and there was absolutely no validity to the accusations,” Hire said in an interview on Monday. “Therefore there was no reason to tell the students about something that didn’t happen but might spread more rumors and cause a panic.”
Hire said the police department finished their investigation on Thursday afternoon so administrators planned an assembly for the following morning to dispel the myths to all of the students at once, to avoid further misinformation. After the assembly, an automated phone call informed parents and staff throughout the district that the rumors were not valid and that “every precaution” was being taken “including the presence of police officers on and around the high school campus in order to keep students and staff out of harm’s way,” Hire said in a released statement.
Hire said the students who were rumored to be on the list and their parents were notified immediately after administrators reported it to the Exeter Police Department on Tuesday and the school district spoke with those parents in person throughout the week during the investigation.
Police Chief John Hall said, “The concern level was clearly elevated in light of recent events.”
A second, unrelated rumor actually started innocently with a parent warning their child to “stay safe” and “keep their head down” as reports of copycat shooters began to spread throughout the county, Hire said. When that student shared his parent’s concern with classmates, an exaggerated version of the story turned into a student threatening to shoot students when it was retold to others. Students then began linking the two rumors together.
“People began talking about, misinterpreting information and now you have something like the old playground game where the message completely changes from the first person to the last person down the line,” Chief Hall said.
Hall said no arrests were made in connection with the rumors because no threats were actually made. He said when students and parents hear rumors like these they should try to remain calm and objectively evaluate the information, asking where the person telling them heard the information. If it still seems credible, then call the police.
“I would rather deal with 1,000 of these types of rumors than just one unreported instance where someone gets hurt,” Hall said. “We are certainly willing to come and investigate anything.”
While many parents and students were upset with district administration, Hire said he had received several messages from high school parents thanking him and his staff for their handling of a difficult situation. Principal Robert Mayo said he received a message from a parent of one of the students rumored to be on the list on Monday morning. In the email, the parent said when they contacted their student to ask if he wanted to come home, the student assured them that “he felt safe enough to stay at school” after a meeting with the principal and superintendent.
“Thank you for the role you play in our children’s lives and for keeping them safe.”
In order to increase parent and community confidence in the District’s handling of student safety concerns, Hire announced that EUSD will hold a Town Hall meeting this Thursday, March 1 to answer question and to share ways parents, students, staff and the community can partner with the District to prevent situations similar to the events of last week. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. at the EUHS auditorium at the corner of Highway 65 (Kaweah Avenue) and San Juan Avenue.