Exeter Unified superintendent takes questions from students’ parents over the rumored shooting threat, “hit list” investigation that spread between Feb. 20 and 23 at Exeter Union High School
By Paul Myers
Exeter – Almost two weeks ago parents and students feared for their lives in the face of a rumored shooting threat. While it turned out the threat was fake, the fear was real, and parents demanded answers from superintendent Tim Hire on Thursday, March 1.
On Tuesday, Feb. 20, Hire learned about the possibility of a “hit list” and that 10 students had said that their names were on it. After involving the police, the investigation revealed there was no hit list nor was there any evidence of one. All 10 students and their families were made abreast of the situation from beginning to end. The student body and parents became aware and upset when a second rumor began to circulate around campus 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. The rumor spread primarily in direct contact between students via text messaging and word of mouth. Parents received texts and calls from their students when anxieties began to reach a fever pitch. One student says her teacher began to empty cabinets to hide in, in case there was a shooter.
Rumors then coincided with a schoolwide assembly where students believed a shooting might take place. Although the assembly was called for, school administration and the Exeter Police Department dispelled the myths that a school shooter was suspected of being on campus and there was no suspected hit list.
But during last Thursday’s town hall, parents wanted to know why they were not notified of the hit list investigation. Some parents claimed if the situation called for a police investigation, then all parents should be made aware. Hire insisted that circumstances like school shooting threats are taken in a case-by-case manner and there was not a one-size-fits-all solution that he could issue for future incidents. However, that was not a satisfying enough response for Rudy Reyes who confrontationally asserted that Hire would not notify all parents if a similar situation were to arise.
Hire went on to answer a similar question from active band booster Deborah Morely who also ran for a school board position in November 2016. She said that nobody could be sure if there was or was not a hit list, despite the investigation declaring there was not one, and for that reason all parents should be brought in the loop.
Hire responded by saying those parents whose students were directly involved knew of the investigation. He went on to say he did not want to tell all parents in order to avoid panicking them over an investigation that was not complete.
“If we didn’t have to create a situation of panic on Tuesday or Thursday like what happened on Friday, why would we?” Hire asked rhetorically.
He went on to liken the situation to a drug dealing on campus. Hire said if a student came up to him and said another student tried to sell him drugs, they would question the students who supposedly tried to sell drugs. If it was determined that there was no evidence, they would not call an assembly to say there was not a drug dealer on campus.
Other parents understood administrators’ role in cases like this, but they still wanted to know where they could get information from the school if this were to happen again. The question was based on what happened on Friday, Feb. 23 when parents tried to get through to the front office and could not get through, which led to a wave of parents pulling their kids out of the assembly and out of school for the rest of the day. One parent, Lisa Adams, said that she was being treated as if she was overreacting, but also said she had reason to feel fear given some close experiences she has had in the past.
“I have a friend in Arizona who dropped off her daughter at school around eight o’clock and then later she got a text from her daughter that said, ‘If I don’t see you again mom, know that I love you’,” Adams said. “If I could take my kid out of school after that I would…And I’ll overreact any day when it comes to my child.”
Another parent said he was left with nothing but anxiety when he got word from his child about the rumor of a shooter. He said he just wanted some information to go on. Ronni Doyal, another parent in the crowd suggested the school put a small informational blurb on their web site that gives some information on what is going on at the time. Albeit information during times of rumors and crisis is far from complete or accurate and many facts are not discovered until after the situation is over.
The last voice of the town hall came from the only student to speak all night. She said she has never felt safe on campus because of their lunch policy. Exeter allows some students with a requisite lunch ID card to leave campus for the lunch period. While staff is there to check that only students with cards are leaving, she said, there are not staff making sure that the same students are coming back in. She fears a young looking older person could walk onto campus with a fire arm and nobody would know. Hire said that he would personally look into the policy and see if it is something they need to adjust.