‘My kids are everything’: Fearful parents keep kids home from South Bay schools, too

By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze

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Vince Dover, a senior at San Pedro High, takes advantage of being out of school Tuesday by getting in some time at the skate park located in Peck Park in San Pedro. Dec. 15, 2015. (Chuck Bennett / Staff Photographer)

Priscilla Serrano’s three children don’t attend Los Angeles Unified schools, but she kept them home anyway Tuesday.

And she wasn’t alone, as fear spread among parents throughout South Bay school districts in response to the threat that prompted closure of every campus in the nation’s second largest school district.

“My 8-year-old started crying, saying, ‘What if they bomb tomorrow instead?’ ” said Serrano, whose three children attend Fern Elementary School in the Torrance Unified School District. “It’s very scary. I’m praying to God and doing the rosary but it’s still scary. I’ve been shaking all day.”

South Bay schools and district offices — some of which have been wrestling with their own threat hoaxes recently —were inundated with calls from concerned parents Tuesday.

Torrance mom Anjelica Guzman reflected their fears. Guzman kept her two children out of their Torrance elementary school.

“My kids are everything and I don’t want to put them in harm’s way if I know there’s a potential for that to happen,” Guzman said. “It’s so sad that we’re almost living in fear over it all. I know I can’t keep them home forever. I don’t want them to be scared to go to school (but) I’m scared sending them to school.”

Many South Bay school districts and individual campuses reported attendance was down Tuesday, in some cases sharply.

Torrance school district officials didn’t release attendance figures, but said attendance may have been lower than usual at some schools. The district sent parents a message in the morning that their schools were not in danger, as did most other local districts.

Attendance was down 15 percent more than usual at Lawndale School District facilities, said Superintendent Ellen Dougherty.

“We had a lot of calls from panicked parents, and we put out phone calls immediately to calm them,” Dougherty said, adding that all local school district superintendents conferred throughout the day with police officials.

“We’ve all had those (threats) in our districts. You can never be too careful, and student safety is our most primary concern. But I think what happened in San Bernardino is still on all our minds and is too fresh and close. That makes it all more frightening.”

Hawthorne High School Principal Mark Newell said the school received many calls from parents, and that roughly 10 percent fewer kids attended classes.

“We tried to reassure parents that school was open and we felt we were very safe for the day but we did have several parents that said they just did not feel comfortable sending their kids to school,” Newell said. “We talked to every first-period class about what was happening, that it was not a joking matter, and that we are safe here.”

He said grief counselors were available on campus but no students sought help.

Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified schools had about 1 percent fewer students, though Superintendent Don Austin said that could be attributed to other factors.

About 2 percent fewer students than usual attended Redondo Beach schools, Superintendent Steve Keller said. Keller dealt with a campus threat last week when someone painted offensive graffiti on the Redondo Union High School campus that said “You are all (expletive) animals being led to the slaughter as you deserve.”

Keller decided, in that case, to keep school open. He said that each threat must be analyzed thoroughly and in context. He emphasized the importance of students and parents being well informed when their schools are affected.

“Be careful with social media,” Keller said. “Social media is a piece of this that can be a positive or (can be) embellished, erroneous and potentially quite harmful to the public. Misinformation can wreak havoc and, instead of trying to solve the problem, you’re chasing a message that isn’t scrutinized.”

Michael Matthews, superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, did not release attendance figures but, like many local schools, sent reassuring messages to concerned parents. Manhattan Beach’s only high school, Mira Costa, has closed twice since Dec. 7 because of threats and went on lockdown Monday after the administration received a voice mail containing a bomb threat. Each time, the campus was deemed safe.

“Our schools are open today,” Matthews wrote to parents on Tuesday morning. “You all know that I have been very cautious with the threats we have received, and I would inform you if I believed there was any need to close or lock down. We are open for what I hope will be a normal, enjoyable, and highly educational school day.”

Patricia Costales, a licensed social worker, psychotherapist and parent of two children in Redondo Unified, acknowledges she was “freaked out and distracted” when she got a robocall from the district last week about threats made the same day Mira Costa closed for the second time due to threats.

“Those kids must be a little anxious going to school today and we need to acknowledge that and talk about it and not sweep it under the table,” said Costales, executive director of the Guidance Center, a Long Beach-based nonprofit mental health provider serving about 3,000 children and families annually.

The center works closely with schools in the Los Angeles, Long Beach and Paramount unified school districts.

Costales cautioned parents and school staff against not talking about threats as a way to prevent the spread of fear and re-establish normalcy.

“Students need to know that it’s normal to be anxious and feel scared and distracted. It’s not normal to have school closed three days because of threats and on the tail of what happened in San Bernardino and Paris,” Costales said. “Even if you are distracted, acknowledge that calmly because you want to make it clear that you are the adult.”

Open conversations allow parents and teachers to assess what children know, where they heard it from, correct misinformation and check in on their feelings.

“I think the most important thing all districts need to do is also send a message of reassurance,” she said.

Staff writers Megan Barnes and Ed Pilolla contributed to this report.

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