San Gabriel students, teachers happy to be back at their school

Parker Watty, 3, gets a hug from Atascadero police Chief Jarel Haley. Parker was excited that the "woo woo cars" were parked in front of his sister's school. Sister Aly, 8, and mom Jody are in the background.
Parker Watty, 3, gets a hug from Atascadero police Chief Jarel Haley. Parker was excited that the "woo woo cars" were parked in front of his sister's school. Sister Aly, 8, and mom Jody are in the background. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For the first time in two weeks, San Gabriel Elementary buzzed with the sounds of hundreds of young students as parents and their children streamed past a green “Welcome Back Gators” sign and entered the school gates Monday.

“Happy to be back,” parent Jeremy Briscoe said when asked how he felt about returning his kindergartener to San Gabriel.

The Atascadero Unified School District reopened the campus after it had been shuttered since threatening letters and a suspicious object — filled with a liquid that law enforcement described as a dangerous substance — were discovered Sept. 11 before school started.

The FBI is continuing to test the liquid as well as process numerous other pieces of evidence, including the letters, their envelopes, and chains and padlocks also found on campus at the agency’s Quantico, Va., laboratory, Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley said.

“We have the best lab in the world reviewing our evidence,” he said. “We just need to let them to their job.”

While police are continuing to conduct interviews, Haley said the evidence being processed by the FBI is a big part of being able to make an arrest. Police have not publicly identified any suspects.

Atascadero district officials also hired a certified environmental monitoring service to thoroughly examine the interior and exterior of the school campus. Testing results, which were returned last week, did not detect any harmful chemicals.

Haley and Cmdr. Joe Allen greeted parents and children outside the school campus Monday, along with teachers, district administrators and board members.

The school’s approximately 570 students had attended class for the past two weeks at three different school sites in Atascadero and Santa Margarita.

San Gabriel Principal Shauna Ames said teachers were able to return to campus Saturday and Sunday to get their classrooms ready for students.

As of 9:30 a.m. Monday, 93.5 percent of the school’s students were in attendance, Superintendent Tom Butler said.

That included 28 first-graders in Anna Potter’s class, who gathered on the floor to listen to a story called “The Map.”

“What sounds do we hear in 'map'?” Potter asked. Next to her, she had written on a easel pad: “Welcome back to San Gabriel. How are you feeling about being back? I am excited!”

Jodie Cohen, president of the San Gabriel Parent Teacher Association, expressed a similar sentiment.

“My kids are excited,” said Cohen, who parked down the street at Hope Lutheran Church and walked with her children to campus. “They’ve been running around their playground, putting backpacks on hooks. They’re glad to be here and see their friends.”

Cohen said the past two weeks had been difficult logistically, shuttling her children to three different schools. But her kids had fun at the schools and enjoyed the swings, which San Gabriel doesn’t have.

However, she added, “I just really wish they had arrested someone. But I feel absolutely safe coming back.” That feeling was echoed by several other parents, who also expressed confidence in police.

“I would love for them to catch someone,” said Briscoe, adding that the incident didn’t scare his family. “We weren’t really on a roller-coaster ride. We would have been back on Monday.”

Parent Jody Watty said the past two weeks were a little more stressful for her third-grade daughter than she expected. She kept her daughter home for two days because she thought the students would return quickly to San Gabriel, but then decided to send her back after realizing it might take some time.

When asked about her time at Santa Margarita Elementary, Aly, 8, said: “I prefer being here, but it was OK.”

“She liked the swings,” her mother said. “We would rather them take their time than rush us back,” Watty added. “They’re going to figure out who it is — it’s just a matter of time.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @CLambertSLO on Twitter.