More than 1,100 students at Santa Cruz High School plus more at district schools around the city were locked down Thursday morning after police received a report of an active shooting on the Santa Cruz High campus. Officials later determined the report to be false and SCHS students were being bused to Depot Park to reunite with families.
UPDATED 2:30 P.M. THURSDAY: Santa Cruz City Schools locked down all of its schools Thursday morning after reports of an active shooter that officials ultimately determined were false.
Police and sheriff’s deputies surrounded Santa Cruz High School shortly after receiving an anonymous report of an active shooter on campus around 10 a.m.
The school district said the tipster claimed to be a teacher, but noted a classroom at the school that does not exist.
“There is no active shooter,” Superintendent Kris Munro told a crowd gathered near the school at about 11 a.m. At 11:41, Munro followed up with a letter to families.
“Police are now considering today’s anonymous tip ‘likely a prank.’ There has been no evidence of a shooter, of violence, or of a threat to Santa Cruz High School,” she wrote.
“We continue to cooperate with law enforcement as they complete a thorough search of the Santa Cruz High campus, and students at the site were being bused to Depot Park while the investigation finishes.”
Students assembled at the school’s baseball field and then went via bus to the park.
In an afternoon email, Munro said school and district administrators and law enforcement officials would “present a summary of facts and a timeline of events following the anonymous tip ‘prank’ this morning on our campus” during a Zoom meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday; here’s the link to join.
District spokesperson Sam Rolens told Lookout’s Hillary Ojeda that there were no reports of injuries; as of 12:30 p.m., Rolen said he wasn’t aware of any arrests.
Rolens said that to his knowledge Santa Cruz High and nearby Mission Hill Middle School were on lockdown, with other district schools under a shelter in place protocol. Shelter in place is a much more normal day, Rolens explained, with the only difference being that students stay in their rooms for break and recess.
Per the Santa Cruz City Schools website, “a code red lockdown means we have a life threatening emergency on our campus. We lock down immediately. We turn off lights. We build interior barricades in our classrooms. We remain silent. We wait for further instructions from law enforcement. If a staff or student is left outside during a code red, they are directed to flee the campus if they are able or hide themselves as best they can. We will not open our doors for anyone except law enforcement.”
“Shelter in place is used when we have an atmospheric event such as severe weather or a chemical spill in the vicinity of the school,” the site says. “We seal doors and windows and turn off the HVAC system. We continue teaching as usual and no one is able to enter or leave the building.”
Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante told an 11 a.m. news conference that he believed one person had been detained but emphasized there was not evidence, at the time, to link the person to the active shooter threat.
Responding to rumors that the person calling in the active shooter named a room number that didn’t exist in the school, Escalante was careful not to call the situation a hoax, yet.
“We will continue to look into this, if it turns out to be a hoax, who was potentially responsible for that,” Escalante said.
Escalante said police responded at 9:33 a.m. to a report of an active shooter at Santa Cruz High. He said the initial report included multiple shots and multiple victims. The school immediately went into lockdown and hundreds of officers responded from agencies all over the county, including with air and drone support. “It’s a fluid, active scene,” he said.
Escalante added that police had not found any signs of an active shooter or confirmed any reports of injuries on the campus and that everyone at the school appeared to be safe. One person was detained on campus, “but at this point there is no evidence to link this person to any sort of active shooter,” he said.
Superintendent Kris Munro told the news conference that other schools in the district were also sheltering in place out of caution. “Our students are safe, staff is safe,” Munro said. The schools were planning to be in session tomorrow.
Munro noted that there has been a national trend of people calling in false active shooter events: “It’s happened in other states and it looks like that’s what’s happened today.”
“My heart sank, and that’s why we prepare,” County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah told Lookout’s Kevin Painchaud as the lack of threat was understood.
He noted, in a four-minute interview available here, that Santa Cruz police had received several calls Thursday morning that “multiple students were down” and “shots fired” — which both proved untrue.
As those calls came in and police and sheriff’s deputies converged on Santa Cruz High, Sabbah said, authorities asked that all students in Santa Cruz City Schools shelter in place — essentially a lockdown in their classrooms — and that some high schools outside the Santa Cruz district do the same. That lockdown was lifted as it became apparent that there was no imminent threat.
Sabbah, who like Munro cited the increasing prevalence of such hoax calls across the U.S., spoke to the preparations that local schools have made for such threats.
“We meet monthly and practice a number of different scenarios. Just Monday, we had a training that included a practice of the evacuation protocol, and one of the schools was Santa Cruz City Schools,” he said, adding that the county’s incident command system academy has brought together school officials and law enforcement to improve readiness for such incidents.
In a tweet late Thursday morning, Dignity Health said its “Dominican Hospital team was ready with over 100 clinicians activated and prepared to treat injuries.”
A Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson said as noon approached that officers were still on site and continued to investigate. There was a heavy police presence in the area of the school, located near downtown at California Street and Walnut Avenue, with city police officers, sheriff’s deputies and members of the Capitola Police Department.
Just before 10 a.m., the school, with around 1,150 students, moved to “code red” status, per a student inside the school at the time. Police began going classroom to classroom before determining that it what officials have called a prank or hoax. As authorities determined that there was no threat, the school began busing students to Depot Park. The first bus arrived at about 12:05 p.m.
In an email to parents, Santa Cruz City Schools outlined the process of moving students from Santa Cruz High to Depot Park.
“Shortly, we are going to begin evacuating SCHS classroom by classroom. We will be starting with outer classrooms and moving toward the center of campus. All students will be taken by bus to Depot Park. When families registered, they indicated if their student could be released without a parent or guardian present in the event of an emergency. Those students will be released from Depot Park. All other students will be released to guardians or the emergency contacts that were listed on their registration forms. We are asking all students to leave their possessions in the classroom. Classrooms will be locked. There will be further communication about how to collect possessions at a later time.”
Through the morning, parents gathered outside the school, anxiously awaiting news about their children sheltering in place inside. Some parents were sobbing and holding each other and asking when they could go see their children.
At least five mental health counselors were on the scene to talk with parents.
Connie Canchola had been texting her 17-year-old son, who is a senior in the high school, since 10 a.m., when he told her police had rushed the school and he was safe in the library. “I feel very sad. My son is there. I’m very confused,” she said.
Sean Maxwell, a Santa Cruz City Council candidate whose daughter attends the high school, stood at the corner of Laurel and California streets in a crowd of parents. He described the fog of panic surrounding the active shooter reports, saying that while some family members had told him there were six victims, others said there were none.
Among other officials on the scene were Santa Cruz City Councilmembers Martine Watkins and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, who was waiting for her children.
Earlier, comments on Santa Cruz High’s Instagram post said officials were confident that the shooting report was false.
“We have confidence that it is a hoax,” read one of the comments. “Multiple schools received a call from the same person. All students are safe. We are following safety protocols.”
Felix Gonzalez-Sack, a 17-year-old senior at Santa Cruz High, said he was in a woodshop class with about a dozen other students when he heard an announcement over the public speakers that the school was going into lockdown, followed soon after by an announcement calling for a “code red,” the sign that there was an active shooter.
A teacher ushered the students into a windowless tool storage room, where they sat in the dark, texting on their phones and listening to a police scanner.
“Everyone in that class was OK,” he told Lookout’s Hillary Ojeda. “None of us were panicking, which was good. But there was a lot of confusion as to what was going on. And that made some people uneasy.”
“For the first hour everyone was surprisingly chipper because we thought it was a hoax and then the uncertainty set in at about the one-hour mark,” he said.
School officials finally let the students out of the small storage room after about two hours, though Gonzalez-Sack said they were told to leave their backpacks behind. He grabbed some food from his bag and headed to a bus.
Gonzalez-Sack said he was angry after learning that school officials believed the incident was a prank that is part of a larger national trend of false threats about active shooters. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think the people that are making these threats are just clowns that are trying to promote mass hysteria.”
The teen said he and his family were in Paris in 2015 when the city was hit by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, but he said Thursday’s lockdown felt even closer to home. He said he wants to see stricter gun control because “reliable access to weapons makes it easy to promote threats like this because obviously anyone can access something.”
This is a developing story; check back for updates.