Students hid under desks and worried parents gathered outside a Paso Robles elementary school placed on lockdown Thursday after two students reported seeing an armed man making threats just outside the school.
A subsequent four-hour search turned up no leads or suspects, and authorities closed their investigation at Pat Butler Elementary School on Nicklaus Street on Thursday afternoon.
“We will continue to look for someone matching (the suspect’s) description,” Paso Robles Police Chief Robert Burton said. “My opinion is I don’t think people should be scared to go outside, but just be on the lookout.”
Meanwhile, a second report that an attack occurred at nearby Virginia Peterson Elementary School during the first lockdown turned out to be false, police said.
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At about 10:45 a.m., school officials from Pat Butler Elementary notified police that two children reported a man had approached them during recess from the outside of the southwest corner of the athletic field’s perimeter fence, police said. The children described the suspect as being a black man wearing black clothing and a cowboy hat, with a rifle or shotgun slung over his shoulder, according to police.
“These two youngsters gave us this report, and we interviewed them several times and their story didn’t waver,” Burton said. “Their report is he verbally said something similar to ‘I’m going to get you’ or ‘I’m watching you’ — something enough for them to be scared and run away and tell a yard duty.”
Multiple local law enforcement agencies, including a California Highway Patrol airplane and helicopter, assisted in the Police Department’s search while students, teachers and staff were told to stay inside their classrooms and offices. Authorities fanned out around the perimeter of the school, into nearby neighborhoods and throughout the wooded area in that region of town. Some neighborhood streets were also blocked off.
During that time, Nicolette McCrary was walking to the school to bring lunch to her son, a fifth-grader at Pat Butler.
“I saw the airplane circling. They were doing a tight circle around the school, and I knew something was going on,” she said, noting that she became increasingly frightened. She quickly asked an officer on foot patrol what was going on and was told about the threat and lockdown.
Meanwhile, her son, Gavin McCrary, was hiding under his teacher’s desk with others in his class. He said the school gave instructions over the intercom system for everyone to stay inside because they were doing a “sweep.” Little information was given to the students, but Gavin said they were told that the warning was not a drill.
“They told us to stay put. And our teacher wanted us to hide,” the 10-year-old said. “We hid under desks for about an hour. Everybody was panicking, and I felt pretty scared but also not — because I knew the police were there.”
Gavin said his teacher, Mrs. Moore, instructed her students to hide under desks, chairs, under a sink area and under her own desk. Gavin was one of three students hiding under the teacher’s desk, he said, while she remained crouched down beside it with her office phone. School staff and police officers brought the students their lunch and escorted them in small groups to the restroom, he said.
Parent Tom Seidel was 40 miles away waiting for a work meeting in downtown San Luis Obispo when he first heard about the lockdown from a Tribune news alert sent to his phone.
“I thought, “Wow, what’s going on?’” he said, “And then I see it was my son’s school. I was a little shocked.” Seidel phoned someone in his parents’ group who was volunteering on campus that day, which helped to calm his nerves. The other parent relayed that the school was on precautionary lockdown due to reports of an armed man making threats.
“I felt OK after that,” he said, noting that he still made the drive back north to Paso to get his son. “I’m glad the school did its due diligence (in doing the lockdown).”
The Paso Robles school district uses an automatic system to communicate with parents and guardians through email, phone and text messages for routine messages from the schools as well as emergency broadcasts such as delayed openings, early dismissals, and school lockdowns, according to the district’s 2014-15 Parent Rights Notification booklet.
During the police search Thursday, officers responded to a separate report of someone possibly attacked at Virginia Peterson Elementary on Beechwood Drive, but a school official said the report was a false alarm.
Burton later said that a female student at the second school reported she was assaulted by an adult male with a knife in a school restroom. School officials locked down that school for a brief time while police searched the campus.
Officers who responded to the scene looked at the bathroom where the reported attack occurred and talked to witnesses before determining that the student “fibbed,” Burton said.
The school district will provide increased support at all school sites over the coming days.