Following San Bernardino school shooting frightened parents happy to reunite with children – The Mercury News
SAN BERNARDINO >> After hours of waiting with hundreds of other frightened and confused parents for their children to be released from Cajon High School, Cynthia Williams put on a brave face.
Her kindergarten son, with one hand around hers and the other around his father’s, was smiling, and she didn’t want to spoil that with frank talk of the shooting at his school that left three dead and another child wounded.
“The first thing he said is, ‘Something bad happened, but my teacher protected us,’” Williams said. “That’s what he knows.”
But for most of the day – from shortly after 10:30 a.m., when she learned of the shooting, until shortly before picking him up a few minutes before 3:30 p.m. – she hadn’t been nearly so comfortable.
She hadn’t heard from her son, who usually wears a GPS watch that allows emergency phone calls but forgot it Monday.
“He never will again,” she said.
Many parents were upset they didn’t hear directly from the school district when the shooting happened at North Park Elementary School. Nor were they happy as they scrambled to the elementary school, then followed school buses to Cal State San Bernardino, then waited outside Cajon, where district officials asked them to stay with identification ready.
The last of the students returned to their parents at about 4:30 p.m. at Cajon after being first taken to CSUSB.
District spokeswoman Maria Garcia said some of the time was devoted to interviewing and counseling the special needs students in teacher Karen Elaine Smith’s class who witnessed the shooting.
“Some of the students have intellectual disabilities, and you can imagine interviewing them was very difficult for the police. And we were interested in counseling them as well,” Garcia said.
Fighting against the panic were clergy, volunteers and a few parents.
“It’s going to be all right,” grandmother Regina Hamilton said loudly, hugging a stranger. “If we be patient, they’re going to bring our kids to us.”
Hamilton praised North Park Principal Yadira Downing for her handling of the attack, and thanked God while waiting outside Cajon.
But when more distraught parents stepped away, she lowered her voice.
“My baby is safe,” she said, “but how can I rejoice in that when I know other babies aren’t?”
Marie Cabrera of San Bernardino normally prays at the sites of violence in the Inland Empire as a member of a local prayer group.
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On Monday, she found herself caught up in one, as she has two children who attend North Park Elementary.
“I believe that my kids are safe,” she said. “We thank you for all your prayers and your support on Facebook. … Thank you so much, God bless you.”
Students taken to CSUSB were fed donated items, shown movies and participated in games such as checkers.
The district’s nutrition services, located near Cajon High School, also provided about 500 hot chicken sandwiches, fruit trays, water and snacks for the waiting parents.
“We had it all down to a process; we announced what grade came in, and there were some very, very happy, crying parents when they got their hands on their kids, you can imagine,” school board member Danny Tillman said in a phone interview. “Communication was the key, and it was amazing the patience the parents had with us.”
Still, some worried parents went straight to CSUSB, including Antonio Anaya, 69. He stood near the spot where buses were unloading the evacuated students from North Park, trying to catch a glimpse of his 8-year-old granddaughter Ava. He’d received a text from his son saying Ava was unharmed, but he still wanted the assurance of seeing her.
“It’s a crazy, mixed-up world when they start shooting kids,” Anaya said.
Ava’s father is in Oregon, Anaya said, and texted him earlier in the day about the shooting.
“My nerves are frayed,” he said. “I ran here as soon as I found out. It did bring back the San Bernardino shooting all over,” he added, referring to the Dec. 2, 2015 terrorist attack that killed 14 people.
CSUSB spokesman Joe Gutierrez said Cal State and other universities are recognized as possible evacuation centers in a crisis. The decision to use the school was made about 20 to 30 minutes after his office initially received word of the shooting. Initially, he said, it was unknown whether the shooting was contained to the school.
“We were sending messages – texts, email and Facebook – to all the faculty on campus to let them know there was a shooting at North Park,” Gutierrez said. “We told everybody to shelter in place and we would advise them within 10-15 minutes.”
Classes were not interrupted by the emergency, he said. And once the North Park students were evacuated to the school, he said his office received several calls from people on campus wanting to help.
As the students arrived, only a handful of parents and relatives were at the unloading site. Police had diverted most of them to a different parking lot and, eventually, to Cajon to wait for their students.
Shayla Raffle, 41, of San Bernardino stayed at the drop-off spot, spending anxious moments trying to spot her 5-year-old nephew, Mark Detinne. The boy’s mother, Amberly, who was waiting in the other campus parking lot, hoping to be reunited with her son, had called Raffle earlier in the day.
“She was obviously devastated and crying and saying there was a shooting at Marky’s school.” Raffle said, adding that she felt rattled. “You see it on the news, but unless you’re in it, you don’t realize how chaotic it is. It’s a very scary feeling.”
Raffle said even though her sister had been told her son was OK, she remained anxious.
“It’s an uneasy feeling knowing this is going on,” she said. “What kind of world are we living in?”
She said parents should be able to feel their children are safe at school.
Instead, she said, “We have to worry: Are they going to come home?”
Rev. Ray Turner of Temple Missionary Baptist Church rushed to the shooting scene minutes after it was reported, and for much of the day he tried to reassure people unsure of whether their children would be coming home.
Information came out bit-by-bit – first that the teacher was a woman, then that the parents of the two children had been identified – and he and others provided what comfort he could, Turner said.
Clergy, police and district officials were well-coordinated, he said.
“It was good to see people here to pray, to give out water, to do what they could,” Turner said. “San Bernardino rolls out in a tragedy.”
Staff writers Mark Muckenfuss, Richard K. De Atley, Watchara Phomicinda, Rick Sforza, Beatriz Valenzuela and Beau Yarbrough contributed to this story.