As planes rumbled overhead on Sept. 12, the auditorium of Point Loma’s Correia Middle School was buzzing. Dozens of parents had gathered in the drab, cavernous hall. More than a hundred had logged into a Zoom livestream. News cameras sat in the middle school’s courtyard.
Two weeks earlier, a boy allegedly told a girl in one of his classes that he had a gun in his pocket.
“‘Are you going to shoot me?’” the girl asked him, according to her mother, Stacey McLarry.
“‘No, you pass the cool test. But don’t tell,’” he said, according to McLarry.
Later that day, as McLarry’s daughter and her friend were waiting down the street from Correia for a ride home, the boy and his friend rode up on their bikes.
“The boy with the gun stopped his bike and stood kind of straddling it and took the gun out of his pocket and just brandished it around,” McLarry said.
When McLarry pulled up, the boys were gone but the two girls were crying and shaking. They told her what had happened, and she brought them back to campus to alert school officials.
In the hours following the report, district police and the San Diego Police Department searched the homes of both boys and reportedly canvassed the surrounding neighborhood but did not find a gun. Officials also said neither set of parents had a gun registered in their name. School officials labeled the sighting as unsubstantiated because they didn’t have enough evidence for any charges – they didn’t find a gun. That label has infuriated McLarry and others.
Early on, information was scant.
Administrators sent out a voicemail to parents saying that an “incident” had taken place and anyone with information should come forward. The vague notice, one they would deeply regret, caused alarm.
The Point Loma Cluster parent Facebook group exploded with speculation about what happened and vitriol about how the school was communicating with parents.
“There were all these rumors going around, like ‘what’s the incident? What’s the incident? I heard it was this, I heard it was that,’” McLarry said.
She said school administrators told her the boys had been suspended, but it was her understanding they’d be back in school soon.
“At this point I didn’t care about policy, I just felt like ‘get those kids out of the school in any possible way you can because I’m worried about my daughter’s safety’” McLarry said.
So, she decided to tell her story. Hundreds of parents responded, and the Facebook group went into overdrive.
Over the next week, serious allegations of longstanding behavioral issues, including a number of instances of sexual harassment and threats of sexual assault, emerged about the boy. Parents in the Facebook group shared his name on social media. Nude content the boy had purportedly sent to girls without their consent circulated. A rumor that he had threatened to return to shoot up the school sent another jolt of panic through the community. Parents picketed and kept their children home as a form of protest. Television news crews descended on the school.
District officials say they did eventually confirm the allegations of sexual harassment. They could not, however, substantiate the threat of violence.
The incident put San Diego Unified’s approach to discipline into sharp focus. In 2020, district leaders passed a restorative justice policy that seeks to repair harm by bringing students together rather than imposing punitive punishments on them. It was partly meant to find alternatives to standard disciplinary methods, which can cause significant long-term damage to kids, and to chip away at longstanding racial disparities in the way the district disciplined students. But how the district doles out discipline, and the restorative justice policy in particular, has repeatedly drawn the ire of parents who say it’s too lenient.
Then they got a crash course in just how hard it is for the school district to expel students.
‘I Didn’t Find Anything’
Ryan Leonard sat with his wife on a bench in Correia’s courtyard. They wanted answers just like every other parent at the meeting on Monday, Sept. 12.
“It’s difficult to tell what actually happened,” Leonard said. “It’s all been rumors, all hearsay, all gossip.”
Inside, then-interim Principal Kyle Kupper, newly appointed Area Superintendent Michelle Irwin and San Diego Unified’s School Police Captain Ivan Picazo tried to walk parents through the situation.
Tensions were high. Some parents grilled the officials, sending cheers through the hall.
Kupper was in a tough position, he said. He had to juggle the community’s desire for transparency with students’ privacy rights.
He said the district investigated every allegation it received – from the sexual harassment to the gun-sighting to the threat. Kupper said he forwarded all the information he had to the district’s legal advisors and waited. Picazo said they then gave him a call and asked what his officers had found in their search of the boys’ homes.
“I didn’t find anything,” Picazo told the parents in the auditorium.
To many parents, even if they couldn’t find a firearm, they had heard and seen vivid descriptions of sexual harassment. It was all enough to justify the one thing they wanted: the boys gone.
Irwin told the crowd there were only five reasons the district can expel students. Yes, possession of a weapon is one of them, but they hadn’t found the weapon. The district’s legal advisors said this case did not reach the threshold for expulsion. That bar for expulsion is higher than districts like San Dieguito, which recently attempted to expel a 13-year-old for a Snapchat post.
Kupper told parents he couldn’t recommend an expulsion without the approval of the district’s legal advisors. But even if they agreed, the district’s board has the final say.
Families can sue to challenge expulsions. If that were to happen in this case, the district’s legal team would have to be ready to defend it, Picazo said.
“Based on what we have, which is no gun, they would lose the expulsion,” Picazo said.
That’s what ended up happening in the San Dieguito case.
“We need to have a gun in order to sustain the expulsion or we would … expel him on Friday and he’d be back to school on Monday morning,” Picazo continued.
This wasn’t what many parents wanted to hear.
They called the meeting damage control, questioned why multiple sightings of a gun weren’t enough for expulsion and decried the district’s restorative justice policy, calling it inadequate.
If district administrators’ hands are really tied in a matter like this, McLarry thought, “then the discipline policy is insane.”
“The time for restoration of relationships, it’s over,” one parent at the meeting said.
“I think the biggest travesty of this matter is the loss of student trust … the ‘see something, say something’ mantra has been proven to them to lack any kind of teeth,” another parent said. If students think they won’t be believed, or that sexual misconduct isn’t enough for discipline, what would the point of coming forward be? “That’s dangerous,” he continued.
‘We Live by Those Findings’
A light drizzle was coming down on the Monday after the parents meeting. I sat with Superintendent Lamont Jackson in Deputy Superintendent Fabiola Bagula’s office, a splash of pink in the district’s otherwise drab and bureaucratic education center in University Heights.
“Someone saw something, and we didn’t find evidence and I think we got that right,” Jackson said.
The entire situation was messy, Jackson conceded, and the district took it very seriously. His own family has been affected by gun violence and he said his goal was to get the messy situation as right as he could for families. Jackson said he trusts the students who came forward and wasn’t disputing that they saw what they said they saw.
But “just an allegation of ‘this is what we saw,’ that’s not enough for us to hold someone accountable,” he said. The same would be true, he said, if a student said another student punched them. “I know for me, if there’s an allegation, I would want an investigation, and we live by those findings,” Jackson said.
Ultimately, the family of the accused is also looking for the district to do its due diligence rather than just dishing out punishment, he said. But while the district couldn’t substantiate the gun allegations, they had substantiated the sexual harassment. He could not elaborate on what disciplinary actions were taken.
In response to longstanding complaints about the district’s restorative justice policy, Jackson said the district can always get better, but the same was true even when its disciplinary procedures were more punitive. Though there have been instances where in hindsight they could have done better and they could communicate the accountability angles of its restorative justice policy more clearly, he said he feels it’s been working well.
Jackson said he thinks many people misunderstand restorative justice policies to mean there are no consequences. “And that’s absolutely not true. There should be consequences,” Jackson said. The district is working on updates to its restorative justice policy, though he wouldn’t go into details.
He acknowledged some parents would be upset by where the district landed on this. Anytime topics like weapons on campus or sexual harassment come up, emotions will run high, and parents will demand answers quickly. Social media moves faster than investigations.
“What hurts a learning community is when, without evidence, we get this swell of information or misinformation,” he said. He wouldn’t say if he thinks that’s what happened in this case.
But, he said, these are also times when it’s most important to take things slow and get them right. These are serious, potentially criminal allegations, and these are 11 to 14-year-old kids.
In any case, he said, now was the time to help care for any fear and trauma that may exist.
“What we can do is restore harm that’s done, we can bring people together if people are willing to do that. That’s the ask, that’s my hope, that we can rise above,” he said.
Deputy Superintendent Fabiola Bagula said the first step would be counseling and figuring out how to make the students that have been targets “whole again.”
“How do we make them feel safe again, so they come to school with joy?” she asked. The answer didn’t seem entirely clear.
But for parents like McLarry, the time for restoration may have passed. She said she was told the two boys had been offered a spot in a new school and had accepted. Still, that was cold comfort.
The whole experience has left her wondering if she wants to keep her kids in public school. Some parents she knows have already decided to enroll their kids in private schools or to homeschool. McLarry said she’s not a discipline hawk, but she wants to know her daughter will be safe. She plans to advocate for changes to the district’s disciplinary policies but knows change is slow and that writing and voting on policies is even slower.
“Am I hopeful things will change while my daughter is in school? Not really. And I’m not sure how long I’m going to fight this fight before just moving my daughter to a private school,” McLarry said.
“That feeling of being completely helpless when it comes to keeping your child safe is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. To know there was a moment where my 12-year-old daughter thought she was going to die was gut-wrenching,” she said.