Did fears of another Sandy Hook-style shooting cause hundreds of Capistrano Unified students to stay home Dec. 21, a full seven days after the Connecticut massacre?
Or was the jump in absences spurred by the arrival of winter break on Dec. 22?
The answer could determine whether Capo Unified is entitled to $123,344 in attendance payments from the state.
At a recent school board meeting, CUSD officials said rumors of more gunplay surfaced "on and around" Dec. 21, causing a costly one-day spurt in absences at eight schools.
However, Orange County Sheriff's Department records obtained by Patch seem to contradict CUSD's chronology.
School districts are normally paid according to the number of students attending school each day. But if an emergency triggers a sudden drop in attendance, state law allows schools to be reimbursed.
That's precisely what happened one week after the tragedy at Sandy School in Connecticut, CUSD officials said. Facebook posts predicting another shooting spooked local students and parents, said Julie Hatchel, Capo Unified's assistant superintendent of education.
The rumors sprang up “on and around” Dec. 21, the day Capo’s six comprehensive high schools and two middle schools saw a 10 percent drop in attendance, she said.
A CUSD spokesman told the Orange County Register that a Dana Hills High School student posted on Facebook that he didn’t want to go to school on Friday, Dec. 21, because he didn’t want to get shot.
But Sheriff’s Department records indicate any rumors and threats were discounted long before Dec. 21. The Dana Hills rumor actually surfaced Saturday, Dec. 15, the first day after Sandy Hook, records show. Two days later, on Monday, the student who posted it met with an assistant principal at Dana Hills and a deputy.
“The student did not have any information about a shooting or about anything else that was going to happen at the school,” according to Kirk Wilkerson, a spokesman for the sheriff’s support services division.
On Tuesday, Dec. 18, a sheriff's investigator again met with the student, a letter from Wilkerson states. “No evidence was found of any credible threat at the school,” he writes.
CUSD told the Register attendance fell by a third on Dec. 21 at Dana Hills. (Patch was unable to obtain attendance figures for the week.)
At the school board meeting, Clark Hampton, deputy superintendent of business and support services, told trustees the district’s application for the $123,344 reimbursement was based on the rumors.
“Between [the threats] and the rumors and the concerns that even law enforcement had because of the rumors – and then the parents in turn had concerns – that’s what’s cited as the correlation of the drop in enrollment,” Hampton explained to trustees at their last board meeting.
Trustee Jim Reardon wasn’t buying it.
“It’s a false premise kind of claim. We’re going in saying that it’s Sandy Hook, let’s take the relief. But it’s not Sandy Hook, it’s bad calendar-making,” he said.
The motion to apply for state reimbursement passed 5-2, with Reardon and Trustee Ellen Addonizio opposed.
A spokeswoman from the state Department of Education said officials there had not yet received Capo’s request.
A Capo Unified spokesman didn't return Patch’s request for comment.
Contacted Friday, Reardon said by email he stands by his comments to fellow trustees.
"Students were kept home as families got a head start on holiday travel," he said.