Rumors of a possible gang shooting at Tokay High School were exacerbated Tuesday evening by a barrage of text messages from concerned students that vibrated through cell phones across Lodi.
On Wednesday, approximately 450 students elected not to come to school. The school's population is roughly 2,000 students.
On a usual mid-week day, absences range from 160 to 180 students, said Erik Sandstrom, principal at Tokay High.
Michael Sublaban, 16, a Tokay High sophomore, received a text message Tuesday night that read: "There's rumor that Tokay might be shot up tomorrow. I don't know if it's true, but let people know."
Junior Dana Edwards, 16, said she received a text from nearly everyone listed in her cell phone warning her to stay away from campus Wednesday.
Sandstrom said the hullabaloo stemmed from a single student who said at lunch Tuesday that he was going to have his "crew from L.A. come up here and shoot someone."
Lodi Police Officer Dale Eubanks said the student was identified and "promptly expelled."
Eubanks added that students did the right thing by reporting the incident to administrators.
"You can't take chances anymore because there could be a deranged kid who wants to prove a point," he said.
The Lodi Police Department had extra officers watching the campus both before and after school. There were no major incidents.
The principal believes that the comment was related to Friday's gang fight, in which two students were cited for throwing punches at each other as students were exiting a rally. Sandstrom believes that six students were involved in the ruckus.
Sandstrom said other students heard the boy make the comment about having someone shot, and told friends and family members. Soon, thanks to instant communication media such as cell phones and social networking Web sites, the incident was so well-known that the principal was receiving phone calls until 1 a.m. this morning.
"The rumor mill has been rampant," Sandstrom said.
Sandstrom sent out an automated call to all Tokay High parents Wednesday at 6 a.m. explaining that he believed that the incident was under control and the administration was doing everything it could to ensure the safety of the students.
Lodi police officers patrolled the school at the beginning and end of an previously scheduled minimum day.
Edwards said her classes were abnormally empty today, with as little as 10 students in classes in which there would normally be 35.
And, like a game of telephone, the hearsay had been spun to the point of absurdity.
According to police, one version of the rumor was that Sandstrom had been roughed up by gang members.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said because students are able to spread rumors so rapidly that administrators often spend more time disarming those rumors than dealing with the actual problem.
"Today we're dealing with generation tech," Trump said.
Trump also said that nationally, as the nine-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting approaches, schools are starting to see an upturn in the amount of threats about campus attacks.
- Connect-ED is the service Lodi Unified School District uses to alert parents en masse.
- When school or district administrators need to let their community know about something quick, Connect-ED allows them to record a voice message and send it out to thousands of parents.
- Connect-ED is part of Blackboard Inc., a California-based
Wednesday was also the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, and in Frenso a school resource officer shot and killed a 17-year-old boy after the student attacked the officer with a bat.
Some students said, just like any other piece of gossip, they took the rumor with more than a few grains of salt.
"I wasn't too worried about it because I'm not in a gang," Edwards said.
Even if students weren't worried about the possible threat, though, some of their parents weren't taking any chances.
Tokay High Sophomore Anjelica Mireles, 16, said she told her mother that she had to go to school because she was supposed to take an important social studies test.
Her mother, Maria, wasn't having any of it, though, and kept the teenager out of school.
Whether it was the lack of students present at the school or the heightened awareness that something terrible might really happen, students were noticeably quieter as they left campus Wednesday afternoon, and the rare loud noise caused dozens of head to turn.
"I just hope nothing really happens," Edwards said. "I hope it's all rumor."