About 150 people jammed a room at S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Riverside on Thursday night, Aug. 25, to hear what educators are doing to improve safety nearly a week after an intruder attacked a girl in a campus restroom.
Alvord Unified School District officials scheduled the town-hall-style meeting to address concerns after police said a registered sex offender entered the kindergarten-through fifth-grade school and assaulted a 10-year-old girl during lunch Friday, Aug. 19.
Superintendent Allan Mucerino opened the meeting by saying the attack “has broken my heart.”
“Never before have I experienced such a thing,” he told the crowd. “I know so many of us are heartbroken about what happened. I understand the anger. It’s just terrible.”
Logan Allen Nighswonger, a 32-year-old Riverside resident, was arrested on suspicion of the attack a few hours later in Placentia. Nighswonger was charged this week with forcible lewd acts on a child, accessing a K-12 campus without permission and a sentence-enhancing allegation of committing a sexual assault during a burglary. Court documents allege Nighswonger cornered and groped a 10-year-old girl. He has pleaded not guilty.
Mucerino said the intruder hopped two sets of fences and added that fencing will be replaced with 8-foot fences within about a week.
“That’s an immediate response,” he said.
Answering a question from the audience, Mucerino said an outside gate that leads from the street to the staff parking lot was not locked at the time of the attack. He said the gate is in a “high-volume” area with many teachers coming and going and it has been common practice for several years to leave the gate unlocked. That gate is now being locked, he said. However, Mucerino said a gate that leads from the staff parking lot into the campus was locked at the time the incident occurred.
Mucerino added that a campus supervisor will be hired to patrol the campus on bicycle.
McAuliffe Principal Gerardo Aguilar told parents about the school’s new “buddy system,” in which kids go to the bathroom in pairs. And he invited them to join a new patrol of parents, pointing to a sign-up sheet in the back of the room.
“It’s open up to anyone who has a child here — a dad, a mom,” he said. “We’ll even take grandma.”
When the meeting opened for parent comments, they were emotional and sometimes heated.
Parent Matt Brown said the “buddy system” isn’t much protection because a large man could easily harm two young children.
“That’s two victims instead of one victim,” Brown said, adding that there should be cameras all over campus and that many parents have cameras at their homes.
Several people said they don’t understand why Alvord doesn’t have campus cameras while other area school districts do.
In response to a question about how the intruder made it to the restroom, Mucerino said the man scaled two fences.
“It was a matter of us not having a set of eyes on the spot at that time,” the superintendent said.
Jose and Leticia Gonzalez, parents of a fifth-grade daughter, said before the meeting that they have many questions.
“How was the man able to jump the fence and get into a bathroom? It’s kind of scary,” Jose Gonzalez said. “And why did he choose this school? What did he see?”
He thinks the man scoped out the campus and learned there “wasn’t anybody really watching.”
Leticia Gonzalez worries that the parent patrols recently instituted won’t last long.
The concerns about security come as Alvord is getting ready to ask district voters in November to approve Measure J, a $248 million bond to boost school safety, update technology and modernize facilities, among other priorities.
The district teaches more than 17,000 students in the western Riverside and northeast Corona areas, including more than 600 at McAuliffe in the La Sierra neighborhood.
Like many campuses across the Inland Empire, there is one way into McAuliffe Elementary — through the front gate. Authorities said the intruder did not go through the gate and was seen climbing over the school’s 6-foot chain-link perimeter fence as he ran away from a campus supervisor, and likely had scaled the fence to get in.
Fencing has become a focus of discussion this week about how the district might make the campus less vulnerable to attempts by intruders to evade the school’s defenses.
Experts say chain link fences are vulnerable because they are among the easiest fences to climb. In recent years, some of the region’s larger school systems — among them San Bernardino City, Corona-Norco and Moreno Valley unified school districts — have replaced chain-link perimeter fencing with stronger, vertical-oriented fences made of wrought iron and galvanized steel that are harder to scale.
While officials mull what long-term upgrades will be needed, several immediate measures were taken to protect the school’s children.
McAuliffe started putting together a parent volunteer patrol to closely watch specific campus locations during student drop-off and pick-up times and recess. Students were asked to take a friend with them when they use the restroom. And the bathroom where the assault occurred was closed as officials considered how to provide surveillance for that area.
Brenda Mendez, whose son attends McAuliffe, said the school must do better.
“These are our babies,” she said. “When the message came through I cried when I heard it was a little girl — because I was once a little girl. We failed that little girl.”
She also offered a question.
“Please, how can I go to bed at night knowing my little boy is safe?”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error. An outside gate that leads from the street to the staff parking lot at McAuliffe Elementary School in Riverside was not locked when an intruder entered the campus and attacked a student, said Allan Mucerino, superintendent of the Alvord Unified School District.