San Gabriel Elementary incident costs Atascadero school district about $206,000

San Gabriel Elementary reopened to students Sept. 28 after an environmental monitoring service examined the campus and found no harmful chemicals.
San Gabriel Elementary reopened to students Sept. 28 after an environmental monitoring service examined the campus and found no harmful chemicals. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A September incident that shuttered San Gabriel Elementary School after threatening letters and a suspicious object were found on campus cost the Atascadero Unified School District about $206,550.

The district has filed a restitution request form with the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department, outlining its costs and estimated revenue loss due to the incident, which prompted officials to evacuate the school Sept. 11. The school was reopened to students Sept. 28 after an environmental monitoring service examined the campus and found no harmful chemicals.

Last month, Atascadero police arrested a 17-year-old Atascadero boy in connection with the incident, after searches of two homes led to the discovery of evidence allegedly related to the crime.

The suspicious object — a candleholder zip tied to a chain-link fence near the playground — contained a brown liquid that Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley identified as sodium ferrocyanide. Haley said the substance is far less toxic than most forms of cyanide and is found in different commercial products — such as table salt, where it acts as an anti-caking agent, and in the chemicals used in film processing.

Letters found outside classrooms instructed officials to “play a game,” similar to the popular “Saw” horror film franchise, Haley said, and indicated that the liquid was a combination of cyanide and acid.

In one letter, the person instructed teachers to locate different sets of keys, some for classrooms and some for padlocks left on school gates. The letter instructed staff to retrieve keys from the candleholder containing the liquid near the playground.

In addition to the costs of the incident to the school district, Atascadero police estimated that it cost about $41,825 in staff time for police officers and detectives, investigators with the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices, and FBI agents from the time they responded to the initial incident to the time an arrest was made. Police will not bill the suspect, Atascadero police Cmdr. Joe Allen said.

The Atascadero school district board will receive its incident financial report at its Tuesday meeting as an informational item.

It really shook the community.

Jackie Martin, Atascadero Unified assistant superintendent of business services

The restitution request includes $85,291 for various expenses: $32,585 for Patriot Environmental Services to conduct environmental testing; $21,728 for staff and a security company to provide site security at San Gabriel Elementary; $11,933 in relocation expenses (staff time and supplies); and $19,044 in staff wages for the amount of time district administrators and school principals spent responding to the incident and planning for students to relocate temporarily to other school campuses.

“We were trying to quantify the time spent due to this incident,” said Jackie Martin, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services. “All the time administrators had to work on planning the relocation, working with different agencies, all the things we had to do outside of the things we normally would have done.”

In addition, the district estimated a revenue loss of $94,669 from a drop in attendance at San Gabriel Elementary and several other schools in the district, including Atascadero High, Atascadero Junior High, Carrisa Plains School and Monterey Road Elementary, which were not directly affected by the incident. (The San Gabriel students temporarily attended class at San Benito Elementary, Santa Margarita Elementary and Santa Rosa Academic Academy.)

“Maybe it’s coincidental, I don’t know for sure, but it was apparent when I looked at all the data that it was a significant percentage drop, in my opinion,” Martin said when asked about including the attendance loss at other schools in the restitution amount.

She said a number of parents from other schools called to say they weren’t sending their children to school because they were worried something would happen at their children’s campuses.

“It really shook the community,” Martin said.

Martin said the district has applied for a waiver from the state Department of Education for the closure of San Gabriel Elementary on Sept. 11. If approved, it would not penalize the district for holding classes one day less than the required 180 days.

Other estimated losses included $23,810 in a construction delay on projects at San Gabriel Elementary and $2,778 to rekey that school.

The restitution request was submitted Sept. 9. Under a medical expenses section, district officials left the total cost “undetermined” but wrote, “Atascadero Unified School District is seeking assurances that restitution be provided for any post traumatic stress or other medical issues for staff, parents, or students as a result of the San Gabriel Elementary School incident.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

Tribune staff writer Matt Fountain contributed to this report.