Sometime between the late evening hours of Sept. 10 and the early morning of Sept. 11, someone came onto the San Gabriel Elementary School campus in Atascadero and used chains and padlocks to lock five gates.
Those locks were cut by construction workers who arrived to continue renovation on the campus before teachers and students came to school, Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley told more than 250 San Gabriel parents, faculty and staff who attended a meeting Thursday evening at Atascadero High.
A school staff member who also arrived early noticed envelopes outside every teacher's door, picked some of them up and set them on the teachers' desks "as a nice gesture," he said.
"The letter itself — there was language that was threatening in nature," Haley said. "It articulated to the teachers that if they didn't do certain things then potentially some harm could come to the children."
The contents of each letter was the same and no students' names were mentioned, he said.
"At no point do we have any indication that the responsible individual accessed any of the classrooms," Haley added.
The meeting Thursday was organized to share information with concerned parents anxious for details about the incident that prompted the Atascadero Unified School District to close the San Gabriel Elementary campus for the past week and send the school’s 570 students to three campuses in Atascadero and Santa Margarita.
Police do not have a suspect or anyone in custody related to the incident that involved both the letters and a suspicious object near the school playground that were discovered before classes started on Sept. 11.
Haley shared more details about the incident, but some information is still not available: the results of testing of a liquid inside the suspicious object. Haley said the object was zip-tied to a fence near the playground. Law enforcement officials said the liquid initially tested positive for a dangerous chemical substance; the FBI is testing it in Quantico, Va.
Also still unavailable are results from testing done by a certified environmental-monitoring service the district hired to thoroughly examine the interior and exterior of the school. That company might complete its work by Friday night, Haley said.
"Sometime early next week we could start the reintegration process back on campus, but there's no guarantee," he said.
School district Superintendent Tom Butler said the attendance rate is running about 85 percent this week as students attend classes at the three other campuses.
In response to questions, Haley said he didn't think the gates had been locked to keep the students on campus, since they were locked before students arrived.
He also shared that a set of school keys had gone missing over the summer, after construction started. Police took a report at the time but there was no indication that there was a threat to the school, he said. He said police are now taking another look at their response to see if things could have been handled differently in that particular case.
"We should have paid more attention to this when it happened and not let it go as easily as it did," Haley said. "School begins and there's no indication that anything is amiss."
During a question-and-answer period, one parent asked whether the construction workers are fingerprinted before accessing campus. District officials said each supervisor is fingerprinted and each firm keeps lists of all of its employees.
"We will review all of our protocols and see if they require higher levels of screening," Butler said.
During projects, fencing is provided to separate the students from workers, he said. After the meeting, a few parents expressed concerns with the current process.
"I will not send my kid back to San Gabriel until they are fingerprinted and the school has records of everyone involved in construction at San Gabriel," said one woman, who declined to give her name.
Haley later said he shared the information to be transparent with parents. He told them: "I don't know how the individual got in ... there's no indication the suspect accessed using the locks or keys in this instance."
The district is changing all of its locks at the school, he said. Haley also told parents that uniformed officers are checking on school sites throughout the night and making extra patrols.
Still, parents expressed different levels of comfort when asked if they would send their child back to San Gabriel once the district receives results from its testing.
"Once they get the testing back from both labs, if the school is cleared of that stuff I don't see it being a problem going back," said Atascadero parent Pat Imhoff. He added: "As long as they take care of the construction stuff."