A shooting threat directed at an unspecified school with the acronym “SHS” circulated widely on social media Wednesday, but students at Sonora and Summerville high schools arrived on their campuses with a calm that belied the hysteria of the night before.
But both schools experienced more absences Thursday than usual.
Students recalled being gripped with fear after viewing nighttime screenshots of an ominous message posted by a “Ray Andres” — “I will not being telling people what my name is, but I will bring a gun to school Tomorrow so be prepared to hear shoots” and “Yes SHS is the school I want.”
Hours after the posting circulated online, school administrators and law enforcement denounced it as a hoax, or at the very least, not intended for Tuolumne County high schools.
But Sonora High School freshman Alysia Means, 14, who said she burst into tears when she saw the message, still felt underlying anxiety when she arrived for school on Thursday.
“I was in complete shock. All this fear washed over me. I was completely terrified,” she said. “I do not want to go to school right now. I still am a little scared, because what if there could be a copycat?”
Sonora High School freshman Mya Victor, 15, also could not contain her emotions Wednesday night, and ran with tears in her eyes to her father’s room to show him the message.
“I was terrified because I thought they were talking about our school, so I did not know how to react,” she said.
Sgt. Andrea Benson said the viral post was “deemed a hoax that was sent through the United States” and that there was “no current threat to any local schools.”
The Sheriff’s Office received over 20 calls about the post, she said.
The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office provided an image from the Starkville Police Department in Mississippi, which indicated that the post was believed to have originated in Springfield, Ohio, and was directed at Springfield High School.
But the frenzy was enough to mandate the presence of additional law enforcement at Sonora and Summerville high schools.
“All schools are covered,” said Sonora Police Student Resource Officer Gordon Winningham, referring to all the campuses within the department’s jurisdiction: Sonora High School, Sonora Elementary School, Dario Cassina High School, Mother Lode Adventist Junior Academy and the Tuolumne County Learning Center.
Before the beginning of classes at Sonora High at 8:05 a.m., Winningham was stationed outside the Shaws Flat Road entrance to the campus with Principal Ben Howell and Athletic Director Karen Sells.
As the morning progressed and more students hopped out of the doors of their drop-off vehicles, Sonora Police Department Sgt. Tim Wertz and Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Pat Chabot also patrolled the campus.
“The parents are concerned about it, rightfully so,” Winningham said. “I’m here every day, this is what I do.”
And the presence of three sheriff’s patrol units on the Summerville High School campus, including the one K9 unit coincidentally there to perform a random drug sweep, Sgt. James Oliver said, seemed to assuage the fears of the student body.
The law enforcement presence “eased anything I’d be scared of,” said Summerville High School senior Connor McGee, 17, who said he had been skeptical of the posting’s credibility the night before.
But as a light dusting of snow fell outside of a classroom, McGee acknowledged that the tone on campus Thursday morning had been restrained by the messages.
“It’s definitely different, but it might just be the snow,” he said. “It’s an interesting mood having police on campus, especially so many of them. But it eases the fears.”
Summerville High School junior Tami Avilla, 16, said she hadn’t developed an emotional reaction to the posting because she hadn’t heard about it until morning when the threat was discredited.
“I feel safe,” she said. “It’s really quiet, and a lot of people didn’t come because they are scared I guess.”
Avila commended law enforcement for providing precautionary safety to the school, and also advocated for trained professionals to possess firearms on campus to further deter a school shooter.
“Why not always have protection whether there is a threat or not?” she said.
Sonora and Summerville administrators acknowledged that the social media threat had prompted fear among students and staff, but emphasized that a prompt communication effort to parents had stifled any widespread anxieties by class Thursday morning.
“I think we’re all much more adaptable to truth when it comes out other than the momentary hysteria,” Summerville Union High School District Superintendent Robert Griffith said.
Summerville High School Principal Diana Harford said the school recorded “10 percent more absences than normal” on Thursday, or about 90 students, compared to a normal absence day of 5 percent. The school has 600 students.
Chabot described the campus as “pretty normal” on Thursday, and said that word of the hoax likely spread among students just as fast as the original threat.
“Everybody seemed to understand what it was, and no one was scared,” he said. “Most of them heard about it. Word of text gets around really fast.”
Sonora High School Principal Ben Howell said the school experienced a “greater attendance drop than usual” with 58 students absent from the total school enrollment of 930 students.
Just before the start of morning classes, groups of students congregated in the central quad of the school.
Sonora High School junior Nicholas Schoenmann said he felt the threat did affect people.
“My bus driver was completely silent. Barely anyone was on the bus,” he said. “Everybody was a little rattled. It was really ominous.”