Reaction among parents at Sonora Elementary School in Costa Mesa on Tuesday morning to news that plastic flutes children used last spring may have been contaminated with human semen was near universal — disgust, outrage, grave concern, vulnerability.
"It's disgusting and it's horrible," parent Tracy Taber said. "And it's heartbreaking, across the board."
Federal and state officials announced late last week that Sonora Elementary and Courreges Elementary School in Fountain Valley were two of many campuses throughout Southern California that participated in Flutes Across the World, an Ojai-based nonprofit's program in which children decorated PVC flutes for themselves and for distribution to far-off countries.
It has not been determined whether Sonora or Courreges' flutes were contaminated. A suspect in the case, who has not been identified, was in possession of Sonora's flutes overnight before returning them to the campus, according to Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustee Martha Fluor.
Newport-Mesa officials informed parents late Friday about the investigation, which is being led by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service with support from the California Department of Justice.
The district held private meetings Sunday and Monday for parents of children who were in the program. District officials have said exposure to the flutes was limited to four classrooms. Children in third or fifth grade last spring participated at Sonora. It included a concert for parents using their decorated instruments.
Newport-Mesa officials have said no district employee has been named as a suspect or was directly involved with Flutes Across the World, which came to Sonora through an education partnership with the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. That partnership is now on hold, Newport-Mesa spokeswoman Annette Franco said Monday.
Franco said volunteers as well as teachers are vetted to work at the district.
Still, said Sonora parent Stacy Zachary, "people are feeling victimized."
Her child was in third grade last year and participated in Flutes Across the World. For her, anger "was the first thing that came to mind," she said. "It's disgusting. You feel violated."
Zachary, a nurse, wondered about her child's potential exposure to any sexually transmitted diseases or hepatitis C. She said some parents are having their children medically tested.
On Monday, experts at the Orange County Health Care Agency and UC Irvine said they did not think the situation poses a health concern.
Dr. Carl Schultz, a UCI professor emeritus of emergency medicine and public health, said the risk of infection from the flutes is likely very low.
Taber said her daughter was in fifth grade last school year and was in Flutes Across the World.
She called the news "one of those senseless acts we can't wrap our heads around." Parents find themselves continually mulling it over, she said.
"We're appreciative of the [district's] caution," Taber added, "but we're hoping there's no contamination on our end."
The case has affected the entire Sonora community, even those without children in the program, parents said Tuesday morning before school.
Deborah Montaldo has two children at Sonora, but they weren't in the flute program.
Still, they had a toy flute they got from Costa Mesa High School. "We threw it out, just in case," Montaldo said.
"It's very disturbing to think kids could have been using those flutes," she added.
Kip Hancock said his family "felt terrible" after hearing the news.
"We were very lucky that our daughter wasn't involved," he said. "Hopefully nothing comes to fruition."
Many parents were wondering how the investigation started and were frustrated at the lack of available details.
"It's still vague," said parent Raymi Wun.