Families in Mammoth meet to discuss new emergency tip program
Two weeks after Mammoth schools were locked down because of a gun threat, Mammoth Unified School District (MUSD) held a public meeting about school safety.
MUSD Superintendent Lois Klein, Mammoth High School (MHS) Principal Chris Powell and School Resource Officer Daniel Hansen recounted the events of the lockdown in detail that had previously had not been disclosed.
Klein read the conversation that occurred on the school’s anonymous tip system, Tip Now.
The initial tip read, “Someone has a gun on campus. Lockdown is advised.”
After receiving this tip, Klein, Powell and Hansen initiated a lockdown.
Klein wrote back, “Please send details. Who is this?”
The tipster said, “Not sure. Trailers have suspicious activity.”
Shortly after noon, Powell received a call from a teacher who said that a girl in his classroom wanted to talk. She told Powell that another student told her that he had a gun and that police were coming for him. Powell had a name of the boy and a connection to the tip.
The girl went to Powell’s office to be interviewed. She confirmed the identity of the boy who told her he had a gun. Klein and Powell don’t believe that the girl is the anonymous tipster.
Then, law enforcement and school administration determined the location of the boy and what the suspect looked like. There was no picture of the boy in the school’s student database, but officers searched the boy’s name online and found a photograph so they could identify him when they went into his classroom.
Officers surrounded the boy’s classroom. Eight officers with assault rifles stormed the classroom. They told the students and teacher to stand up, put their hands on their heads and file out of the classroom. The teacher and students complied.
When the everybody was in the hall, the officers identified the boy and took him into custody.
With the boy in custody, law enforcement searched the campus: including all rooms, students, and bags.
Mammoth Lakes Police Sergeant Jason Heilman led the search.
At Wednesday’s meeting, he said that he wanted officers to focus on finding a firearm and not illicit items such as weed or tobacco vaporizes or other drugs. According to Klein, officers found “a lot of substances in their [the students’s] backpacks.”
Officers did not find a firearm in the school or on the boy. Law enforcement questioned the boy and released him that day.
At the meeting, Klein said that the climate on campus during the lockdown was threatening, intimidating, and invasive.
The next day, the boy returned to campus. He then left campus. Administration and law enforcement were notified. The boy was arrested off campus for trespassing. Law enforcement was able to verify that the boy had been on campus, in between the island in the front parking lot and the portable classrooms, by going through security camera footage.
The Mono County District Attorney’s office has since taken the case.
After Wednesday’s debriefing, parents asked questions to the officers and MUSD administration.
Klein repeatedly praised the students for their willingness to cooperate, calling them “amazing” and “wonderful”. She praised the responding officers, focusing on how fast they arrived on campus. Parents echoed the praise of the response. The consensus among the crowd was that it was fast response and an amazing response.
A woman asked, “How can we strengthen our consequences?”
Klein informed her that school discipline is mandated by the California Department of Education and has to be changed through legislation.
Another woman asked, if the boy would ever be able to return to school. The boy has been expelled. Expulsions last for two semesters and if the conditions of the expulsion are met, then the boy can return to school. Another asked, “What is zero tolerance?” referring to the school’s zero-tolerance policy.
A man in the back row implored his fellow parents to advocate for more funding for Mammoth’s Police Department at Town Council meetings. “Don’t be shy if you’re hispanic, Chilean or from East LA,” he said. A few people laughed at the comment.
A woman asked if the school could do random backpack checks. Not without reasonable suspicion, replied Powell and Klein.
One woman said, “My child was absolutely terrorized.” She wanted to know if the school could do more to address student trauma.
Lieutenant Joseph Vetter let her know that he understood her concerns. He added that a lot trauma has to do with societal perception of police officer “Our society has criminalized the police officer,” he added.
Would the tip that led to the lockdown be considered false? The system seems ripe for abuse because of the anonymity of the tip sender (tipster) and the openness of the system.
Tip Now created phone numbers for each school in Mammoth Unified School District that students, faculty, staff, parents, community members, anyone can text or call and leave an anonymous message about anything: bullying, sexual harassment, gun threats, bomb threats, suicide, hazing, drugs, etc.
When a tip is sent, the principal of the school, Resource Officer Hansen and Superintendent Klein receive the tip.
If they need more information than was provided in the initial tip, they can communicate with the tipster, as happened on Wednesday, January 9. Klein asked for more details, and received a location “trailers have suspicious activity” that turned out not be the site of suspicious activity.
It isn’t known if the girl who told staff about the boy with a gun, is the anonymous tipper. The district can’t find out the identity of the tipster without a subpoena from the district attorney. Also, the district and law enforcement cannot disclose the identity of the boy because he is a minor.
If a tip falsely accuses a student of violence or possession of a gun, can that student request that the identity of the tipster be sought?
The district tracks its tips on a spreadsheet shared between the four schools (Sierra High School is the fourth school.) The school has to track the tips because Tip Now doesn’t offer access to the tip data.
Principal Powell explained the high school receives a range of types of tips.
“Most are not school safety related,” he said. “Most are about parties on the weekends, or students concerned about friends,” he said.
“People vaping in the restrooms,” Klein added.
There have been tips about suicidal students, or as Klein put it, “someone doing something at a football game.”
At Mammoth Middle School, the tips tend to be about bullying. When The Sheet spoke to Klein on Wednesday she mentioned that there had been a tip about bullying that morning.
Mammoth Elementary has only received one tip.
The only tip about a gun on campus was the one sent to the high school on January 9.
“We haven’t had anything that’s a false tip,” Powell said in a phone call with The Sheet on Tuesday.
The tips that the schools received are private, Klein said.
In August, 2018, at the beginning of the school year, MUSD adopted Tip Now.
Tip Now is a product of Resiligence, Inc., a San Jose based software company that creates emergency mitigation solutions. ‘Resiligence’ is not misspelled; it is the combination of ‘resilience’ and ‘intelligence’.
Tip Now did not respond to The Sheet’s phone calls.The Sheet wanted to know what it does with the data it receives from the tip system.
The system costs $8,000 per year and does not give the district the ability to access the tip data.
It also fails notify the tip receivers—Superintendent Klein, Officer Hansen, and the corresponding principal—if one of them has already responded. Klein might ask the tipster for more information after Officer Hansen has already asked. This redundancy could confuse a tipster, and diminish the system’s credibility.
MUSD is looking at another anonymous tip system offered by its insurance company SISC (Self-Insured Schools of California). That system would notify tip receivers if a tip has already been answered and would allow the district to access tip data.
On Wednesday, January 16, MUSD was closed because of the blizzard.
The district deemed Wednesday a Red Day, meaning all school related activities are cancelled. That Red Day distinction did not have anything to do with a threat made on Snapchat by a middle school student.
In a letter from January 17, Klein stated, “Dr. Annie Rinaldi, the Middle School Principal and law enforcement went to the student’s home (Wednesday) and met with the student and the parents. After their investigation, they are confident that the threat was meant as a hoax.”
The hoax started as a dare between two boys at the middle school: ensure that school was cancelled on Wednesday. One of the boys sent a Snapchat private message of a photograph of a photograph in a magazine of a guns and ammunition with a caption that read ‘don’t come to school’.
Tip Now was not used to notify school administration or law enforcement.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Gary Taylor, MUSD’s Maintenance, Operations, and Transportation Director, said the district would install more cameras next year.