Explosion at California high school injures teacher. Students, staff demand more security

On Fresno High’s campus Monday shortly after noon, students said it sounded like a bomb went off.

The “explosion” – which students said left their ears ringing, concussed one teacher and filled the surrounding area with smoke – took place in an infamous hallway at the high school. It’s a frequent site of drug use and sexual acts, students and staff said to the point that administrators have jokingly referred to it as the school’s “baby-making area.”

District spokesperson Nikki Henry confirmed for The Bee’s Education Lab in a phone interview late Wednesday night that the explosive device was deemed a “model rocket engine.” The individual responsible for lighting it was identified in an investigation by Fresno police and the fire department as of Wednesday.

But there wasn’t a lockdown in the immediate aftermath, students told Fresno Unified’s school board Wednesday night. They said administrators dismissed the explosion as a “rumor” and called it a firecracker.

“Pretty soon, they’re gonna call it a sparkler,” said Fresno High teacher Jose Sandoval.

“Because when you classify it that way,” he said, “it reduces the responsibility that gets put on it, right?”

Roughly a dozen students and staff from Fresno High narrated the terrifying moment on their campus for trustees Wednesday.

In response, Fresno High wants at least one camera – if not three – for that hallway, a campus safety assistant to keep watch, and more social-emotional supports.

“For over a decade, our teachers at Fresno High have requested security cameras in this stairway for the safety of students,” said Autumn Cedillo, a senior at the school, “but have been ignored by administration and deemed unnecessary.”

While district leaders responded that they’ve been working on solutions since the last time Fresno High staff and students voiced concerns about safety on their campus, several trustees said these actions aren’t being implemented fast enough.

“Our children can’t wait till June,” said Trustee Claudia Cazares, responding to an update from staff that additional cameras would be installed at Fresno High by the summer.

“I think we have a consensus on this board that something has to be done quickly rather than later,” said Trustee Keshia Thomas. “Before we have something happen that we can’t take back.”

The incident

The explosive device was comparable to a large firecracker, Henry said.

The reason there wasn’t a lockdown called was because a staff member discovered the remnants of it after it went off.

“So they were able to see those remnants,” she said, “and understand that there wasn’t an active fire. There wasn’t any bomb, or explosive, or concern. So there was no reason or thought of any imminent threat that would put you on a lockdown.”

Only one injury was reported, she added, referring to the teacher who had a concussion.

As for the person responsible, the police and fire departments’ investigation has determined only one person so far, Henry said.

“It took them quite a bit of investigation, but from pulling together the statements from witnesses and then reviewing the surveillance cameras that were in the vicinity – there isn’t one on that stairwell ... we heard that pretty clearly tonight – but in the vicinity,” she said, “they were able to piece it together.”

It doesn’t seem to have been a targeted attack, Henry added, but just “bad decision-making.”

She declined to speak on any particulars of what disciplinary action individuals could face but added that state education law determines that explosives are a “mandatory referral for expulsion.”

Camera discussion had one trustee’s ‘head spinning’

Only two months have passed since the last time Fresno High students and staff came before the board, demanding safety improvements. In January, staff called for increased safety measures after a particularly violent week in which two students were stabbed near campus and students were arrested in a fight at the school.

Some measures have taken place in that interim.

The Fresno High area’s instructional superintendent Marie Williams shared that they’re working on installing more cameras. The district redeployed a social worker from another school to Fresno High through the end of the school year. The school also assembled an “ad hoc” safety team, composed of students and staff, that’s met twice since January to weigh in on safety concerns.

Trustee Andy Levine, who represents the Fresno High area, also emphasized the district’s contract with community leader Marcel Woodruff to identify and mentor a small group of students most “at risk of violence (and) disruption” to steer them down a better path.

Still, given this particular stairwell’s reputation on campus, Trustee Susan Wittrup asked, “why on Earth wasn’t there a (campus safety assistant) stationed there?”

And the possibility of waiting until June for new security cameras to be installed at the school, Trustee Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas said, had her “head spinning.”

Superintendent Bob Nelson said staff would look for ways to expedite the installation of a camera in that particular stairwell.

While the students and staff who came forward Wednesday night were all from Fresno High, their remarks have become a familiar refrain district-wide in recent years.

At a board meeting in December, eight staff members at another Fresno Unified school — Wawona K-8 — pleaded with the board for more support in response to increased fights between and threats from students on campus.

Another incident at Pyle Elementary last year – in which a parent barged into a classroom full of third graders to threaten a teacher – sparked a particularly tense debate over teachers’ safety.

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