SAN ANTONIO — A war of nerves between a presumed email hoaxster and elementary school parents unfolded Thursday morning under the watchful eyes of extra police patrols and, at many schools, a heavy outdoor presence of administrators and auxiliary employees.
Police and school districts had said the threatening emails sent to various Northside Independent School District elementary campuses last weekend were likely a hoax, but said they could not dismiss them out of hand. San Antonio police coordinated a response with every local district.
The threat implied a mass shooting at an unspecified school during a midmorning time frame, which came and went without incident.
Student arrivals proceeded normally, except that some school districts implemented a more restrictive access plan and limited campus entrances to a single door, with no parents or visitors allowed in.
Police Chief William McManus visited several Northside ISD elementaries to maintain visibility and reassure the public. Other SAPD officers were at schools all over the city, for the same reasons, he said.
“We 100 percent believe that this is not credible,” McManus said of the threat.
Marjorie Mautz, however, picked up her two grandsons, ages 5 and 9, just after they got to Shirley J. Howsman Elementary — the family had sent them before remembering it was the day specified in the threat, and she was there to bring them home.
In this day and age, Mautz said, someone could make good on a threat of mass violence, adding, “It might be a joke, but it’s not a very nice joke.”
McManus declined to say how close investigators were to identifying the person who made the threat. No arrests have been made.
“We’re on top of this,” he said. “We’re good with where we are.”
Absenteeism reduces state funding for school districts, which is based on average daily attendance. A consultant’s estimate of a $1 million loss, based on a scenario where just one out of 10 students citywide stayed home because of the threat, might actually be on the low side, said North East Independent School District spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor.
“Some schools’ attendance is looking like it is really low, and others are looking like they are OK. It really varies campus by campus and won’t be more clear until our numbers come out this afternoon,” she said.
Northside ISD spokesman Pascual Gonzalez predicted the district might not be able to release its attendance rate until Monday. At about 95 percent, the rate had been normal on Tuesday and Wednesday, he said.
“Every child marked absent will cost the school district anywhere from $30 to $50 in lost funding that is used to pay the schools’ utility bills, support services for students, fuel for buses and teachers’ salaries,” Gonzalez said via email. “Collectively … the losses could be significant.”
When Ana Acevedo first heard of the threats, her initial reaction was panic — and many of her friends decided to keep their children home Thursday from Northside’s Colonies North Elementary, she said. But after studying the language of the emails, she said, “It just sounded like someone that was crazy.”
Acevedo said district officials and police were handling it well. She took her two daughters, in the second and fourth grades, to school.
“I think the whole city coming together as a front really brings a lot of confidence,” she said.
Parental reaction to the threat was all but imperceptible outside Cambridge Elementary School in Alamo Heights, aside from the presence of a handful of additional school staff and a police officer stationed at the front door. A cluster of children walked to the campus unaccompanied by adults while others bounced next to their parents, swinging their backpacks.
Laurie Bauman, whose twins attend second grade at the school, said she had almost forgotten that “today was the day” someone had promised to attack a school. The sight of a police car reminded her.
“When I heard about the threat I thought, ‘Gosh, we live in such an evil world,’ but I wasn’t going to keep them home because I don’t want to live in fear,” she said.
James Corletta said he considered keeping his stepson home because a lockdown at the elementary school last year had scared him. Corletta said he’s been happy with the district’s handling of the threat and believes parents were kept well-informed.
“It’s just scary in general that this stuff has to happen; I don’t know why they do it,” he said, holding a five-foot skateboard that he had ridden to the school. “Maybe they’re bored. They need to ride a longboard.”
Alamo Heights ISD spokeswoman Patti Pawlik-Perales said the mood Thursday was calm.
“I think we try to communicate with parents and just try to keep them abreast of what we’re doing so I think they feel safe,” she said, waving to passing students and making small talk with parents.
James Justitz said that while he didn’t talk to his daughter, a first-grader, about the threat, she noticed the heightened security immediately.
“Kids are pretty perceptive,” he said. “She asked me why police were out and I said that it was because people were speeding.”
Justitz added that he didn’t want to alarm his daughter, adding, “I didn’t think it was a credible threat.”
Parents, students and teachers cheerfully streamed into Harmony Elementary School at East Central ISD, unwilling to crush students’ anticipation of a 20-year tradition at the school where first graders hold a Fiesta float parade of decorated shoeboxes down the hallways. Some were a tribute to comic book superheroes, others American pride, and a few showcased their own mascot, the mighty Hornet.
East Central officials decided to hold the event and allow parents to attend. Several districts adopted some form of a soft lockdown and cancelled events.
“We want it to be like any other school day,” East Central spokeswoman Ashley Chohlis said, who has three children at Harmony. “There are always going to be threats but we always work to have the best security possible any day.”
Christina Cornelius, a parent who has three kids in East Central, said she had “no doubt” this morning when getting her kids ready despite some of her relatives urging her to keep them home. She strolled with two of them into Harmony’s main building, as her daughter Cadence tightly clutched her Fiesta float in bright pink with her name on it.
“You have to teach your children not to be scared and go about their normal lives and should encourage them to have some trust,” Cornelius said.
A police officer greeted parents outside the school. Many already knew the officer.
A crew of maintenance workers also stood outside as parents dropped off kids. The district said it put auxiliary staff outside all its schools Thursday.
“I think it’s always on the back of a parent’s mind,” said Randy Shaw, whose son attends Harmony. “I feel like most parents bringing their kids to school today have trust in their school security and local law enforcement.”
Shaw added that his only other child, a 14-year-old boy, opted to stay home not really because of the threat, but more to extend his weekend since state-mandated testing concluded at his campus Wednesday and school is out Friday for the Battle of Flowers parade.
“OK, then you can mow the yard and weed eat some grass,” Shaw said he told his son. “We put him to work.”
Staff Writer Alia Malik contributed to this report.