While about two-thirds of San Gabriel Elementary School students were dropped off Monday at other school sites, and parents opted to keep some students at home, Atascadero police said a suspicious object found Friday near the school’s playground tested positive for a dangerous chemical substance.
Atascadero Unified School District officials said Monday afternoon that San Gabriel Elementary students will continue to attend classes at one of three different elementary sites in the district — Santa Rosa Academic Academy, Santa Margarita Elementary School or San Benito Elementary School — until further notice.
San Gabriel Elementary students and their teachers relocated Monday so that they could regain some normalcy while Atascadero police and other agencies continued to investigate the incident.
“There was no way we were not going to offer school,” Superintendent Tom Butler said after greeting students at Santa Margarita Elementary on Monday morning.
San Gabriel Elementary was evacuated Friday before the start of classes after threatening letters and a suspicious object were found on campus. Police called in additional resources Friday, including the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad and the county Hazardous Materials Team, based on threats made in the letters.
Atascadero police did not release further information about the chemical substance Monday but said in a news release that the object contained “a liquid of unknown origin” that was tested after the object was retrieved. Police are working with the FBI to conduct additional testing on the chemical substance.
“While it does not appear that any child or staff member was exposed to the chemical substance, the school district and law enforcement have decided to act with an abundance of caution by completing this inspection,” Atascadero police said.
At no time was any explosive device located on the school campus, police said.
The Atascadero school district also hired a certified environmental monitoring service to thoroughly examine the interior and exterior of the school campus based on the advice from law enforcement and the county Hazardous Materials Team.
“Our safe return to San Gabriel Elementary School will be based on the results of this comprehensive evaluation and the ongoing investigation,” Atascadero Unified said in a statement. “Until further notice, all students will continue to attend the campuses they have been temporary relocated to.”
District officials said the San Gabriel campus has been continually monitored and there has been an increased visible presence of law enforcement at all the affected school sites.
In an overabundance of caution, Atascadero Unified said, all district school grounds were searched Friday and will continue to be monitored.
Two sheriff’s deputies stood outside Santa Margarita Elementary on Monday as parents walked their children up the front steps near a sign reading, “Welcome San Gabriel Elementary.”
Ten first- through third-grade classes were sent to Santa Margarita Elementary, where some San Gabriel teachers waited on the front steps to meet their students and lead them into their temporary classrooms.
Parent John Hacker of Atascadero said he was glad the district had students attending school at other sites Monday. He and his wife had decided by Saturday that they were not going to send their two children, a second-grader and a fifth-grader, to San Gabriel Elementary until someone is in custody or detailed information is released to parents explaining why the school is being reopened.
Hacker said he polled about six to seven other families and half were keeping their children home Monday.
About 570 students attend San Gabriel Elementary; about two-thirds of them attended class Monday, Butler said.
Hacker, who dropped his son off at Santa Margarita Elementary, said it was good for him to return to a normal schedule.
“If he was out two to three days, then we would have to come back after the rest of the class had adjusted to being in the class,” he said.
Jodie Cohen, president of the San Gabriel Parent Teacher Association, also sent her four children to school Monday — at three different sites.
“It was a little harder than normal to leave them this morning, but the support we saw outside the school made it easier to give my kids a hug and go back to my van,” Cohen said. “For them it was kind of a second first day of school — they were excited. I think staff did a good job making them feel welcome.”
Cohen said her daughter had soccer practice at San Gabriel Elementary until 6:30 p.m. Thursday and everything on campus seemed normal. Atascadero youth soccer practices normally held at the school have been rescheduled.
“It’s just been kind of shocking that something like this would happen at our school,” she said.
San Gabriel Elementary Principal Shauna Ames, who was also greeting parents and students at Santa Margarita Elementary, said counselors were available for students and staff. She planned to visit all three school sites Monday.
“Teachers will have a great, normal day,” Ames said. “They’re energetic and ready to have a school day with their children.”
On Friday, Ames had arrived at San Gabriel Elementary about 7:40 a.m. and was on site about five to 10 minutes before she learned there was a problem on campus. She declined to discuss details of the incident but said that a handful of students who had arrived before 8 a.m. were first ushered into the cafeteria.
Ames then called all of her staff up front, called police and Butler, and decided to evacuate the campus. Teachers and staff walked students down the street to Hope Lutheran Church.
“We’ve trained for this,” said Ames, in her third year as San Gabriel Elementary’s principal. “The secretaries grabbed all emergency cards and medication.
“I couldn’t have asked for better,” she added. “The kids followed directions. The parents were super understanding.”
She and Butler said it was the first time they had experienced an incident like this in their careers. They declined to comment when asked why they thought San Gabriel Elementary could have been targeted.
Butler said the district has been working collaboratively with law enforcement but directed any questions about the investigation to police. He said the decision was made over the weekend to temporarily relocate students and teachers.
In contrast, San Gabriel Elementary was deserted late Monday morning and the campus was cordoned off by yellow caution tape, which flapped in the wind and light rain.
There was no sign of activity inside the buildings, but a private security guard emerged from the school office to tell a reporter that he didn’t know whether police were still conducting an investigation or whether the campus would re-open Tuesday.
When asked if he was authorized to access the entire campus, the guard, who did not offer his name, declined to comment.
At about noon Monday, a Dodge Charger carrying three men in dress suits pulled up to the parking lot. One identified himself as an Atascadero police officer but referred all questions to Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley. The other men did not identify themselves.
Police said in a news release that a joint investigation to determine the person or group responsible for the threats is ongoing. Police are working with the district to reopen the school campus “as soon as appropriate.”
Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call Atascadero police at 461-5051.