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School threats causing jitters

Times Staff Writers

Threats of violence at dozens of schools Friday triggered shudders across California as educators struggled in each instance to assess whether they were facing a prank or the next bloody classroom rampage.

None of the threats called in or reported to school administrators resulted in violence. Still, attendance at some campuses was down, with some parents keeping their children home.

In La Verne, authorities late Friday were still looking for a troubled 17-year-old who disappeared from home after cleaning out his father’s gun locker.

In Ventura County, an 18-year-old college freshman was in custody after allegedly mentioning a school shooting spree on her Facebook.com page. And in Northern California, a 28-year-old transient turned himself in to police after promising violence that would “make Virginia Tech look mild.”

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Copycat threats have become common in the days and weeks after a high-profile school shooting, law enforcement officials said. Friday’s convulsion, coming four days after the mass killings at Virginia Tech and on the eighth anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, was no different.

But for educators tasked with assessing danger on a moment’s notice, Friday was frustrating and tense. Students too were on heightened vigilance, several campuses reported.

“It was really an emotional week for students everywhere,” said Ceal Potts, a spokeswoman at Cal State Channel Islands, where English major Alisha Salazar was taken into sheriff’s custody Thursday. “Collectively as a nation, colleges -- and sadly, high schools -- are facing a similar situation.”

In Southern California, police were hunting for a 17-year-old student at Bonita High School in La Verne. The boy, who recently threatened someone connected to the school, was missing along with ammunition and several guns taken from his parents’ home.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies conferred with school officials late Thursday about their search for student Matthew Wanamaker, authorities said. To be safe, school officials shut down the campus Friday.

“We’re exercising an abundance of caution,” said William Brinegar, assistant superintendent of the Bonita Unified School District. “It was the obvious decision.”

Deputies responded to a burglary call about 5 p.m. Thursday at the boy’s home in the 600 block of Sedalia Avenue. The call was made by Wanamaker’s parents, Sheriff’s Capt. Jim Curtis said.

Six weapons -- a shotgun, three handguns and two rifles -- were taken from the house along with the safe where the weapons were stored, Curtis said. At that point, authorities realized that the boy was gone.

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Further investigation revealed that Wanamaker, who was scheduled to be transferred to another school Monday, had made a threat about a month ago to a person connected with Bonita High, Curtis said. No other details were available about the threat or the other person involved.

“Obviously, in light of the current situation at Virginia Tech and today’s [Columbine] anniversary, there’s concern and we want to keep the public safe, especially the schoolchildren,” he said. The high school is scheduled to reopen Monday.

News about Wanamaker spread quickly through the small community.

Sophie Eddy, the mother of a Bonita High student, said she was concerned that other district schools did not close.

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“I’m not sure why they wouldn’t because they’re in such close proximity to each other,” Eddy said. “If he had gone to the high school and saw no kids there, what would not make him go to another school where there were kids? .... All the parents called each other and we agreed no kid was going to any school, period.”

Savannah Gonzalez, 15, a Bonita High student who knows Wanamaker, called him a “loner” without friends.

The girl said she wouldn’t feel safe until Wanamaker was found, adding: “I don’t want to go to school on Monday if they haven’t found him.”

Meanwhile, Salazar, the Cal State student, was arrested after posting an online message that read: “Alisha Salazar is going on a

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Another student reported the writing to campus police, who questioned Salazar on Thursday and searched her dorm room before transferring her to Ventura County Jail, officials said.

Salazar was jailed on $20,000 bail Friday, and faces a charge of making a criminal threat.

Other Southern California communities were coping with their own scares.

A 15-year-old boy at Cypress High School was held briefly after another student told authorities he was planning to do something Friday. School officials beefed up security on campus, questioned the youth and discovered troubling writings.

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He was released but is undergoing psychological evaluation and will not be allowed to return to campus, officials said.

“This young man desperately needs any help we can give him because he’s struggling with some things, and we want to do what’s in his best interest, and we’ve got to look for the best interest of the 2,300 other students and their parents,” Principal Ben Carpenter said.

Graffiti discovered this week at Vista Murrieta High School warning “Everyone at VMHS will die on 4/20" and “the bombs are already planted” prompted half of the school’s 3,400 students to stay home Friday, said Karen Parris, spokeswoman for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District. Police and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in but did not turn up anything, she said.

In San Bernardino, a suspicious-looking device found at Pacific High School prompted a brief lockdown until authorities determined that it was two cans taped together.

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“Fortunately, it was a false alert, but we’d rather err on the side of caution,” district spokeswoman Linda Hall said.

In Northern California, schools in Yuba and Sutter counties were closed Friday after bizarre threats from a 28-year-old man caused officials to lock them down the day before.

Times staff writers Catherine Saillant, Jonathan Abrams, Tony Barboza, Steve Chawkins and Valerie Reitman contributed to this report.


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