School kids locked down at Sonoma ropes course

11/20/2019

West Marin School’s annual eighth-grade field trip to the Westminster Woods challenge course took a frightening turn last Friday, when the class was placed on lockdown and escorted out in armored vehicles. 

As students were wrapping up a day developing leadership and team building skills at the rural west Sonoma County retreat center, masked and robed protesters arrived to stage an aggressive protest against campers from the Center for Applied Rationality, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that hosts workshops on rationality and cognitive bias.

It was around 4 p.m. when the suspects blocked both entrances to the camp with a box truck and a small bus, preventing anyone from leaving. One person was reported to have a gun, although no weapon was found.

“We believe they were formal members [of the Center for Applied Rationality],” Sonoma County Sheriff's Office deputy Juan Valencia said. “But we couldn’t really get a lot of information out of them. They were obviously not content with the group.”

Staff of Westminster Woods radioed colleagues who were facilitating the field trip, who escorted the students further away from the confrontation in stages and eventually to an amphitheater, where the class gathered.

When deputies arrived, they detained one unarmed man who claimed to be a reporter and four people wearing black hooded robes, black gloves, black silicone shoe covers and Guy Fawkes masks. Two were carrying walkie-talkies, one was wearing a body camera, and another was carrying pepper spray. 

According to the sheriff’s office, the protestors were verbally and physically uncooperative. The sheriff’s office and a SWAT team responded with a bomb squad and a helicopter to search the property for the person reported with a gun. 

“When the sheriff’s helicopter arrived, I could tell that was when the kids were like, ‘Hm, what’s going on?’” said Julie Cassel, the eighth-grade teacher at West Marin School. Ms. Cassel and Glenda Mejia, a family advocate chaperoning the trip, decided to tell the students what was happening. “Everyone was calm about it,” she said. “I’m sure there were a lot of thoughts going on in their head, but they were amazing the entire time.”

By that time, it was close to 5 p.m., and dusk was setting in. The class went back down the path to meet a deputy, who escorted them to a cabin. There, they sheltered in place for an hour and a half while multiple deputies were stationed outside. 

With the curtains drawn and the lights off, counselors tried to comfort everyone with stories and calm voices. “That was the time when people, including myself, started to get really scared,” Ms. Cassel said. “There were kids who were really quite anxious.”

Adults sat with the most worried kids while they waited. Nobody had cell phone service. When the sheriff’s deputies determined it was safe, they brought two armored vehicles to the cabin to escort the class to the exit of the camp. Their bus driver, Dan Wood, returned after being evacuated.

By that time, it was already 45 minutes later than the class’s scheduled return to campus. Ms. Cassel and Ms. Mejia called each student’s family to let parents know that the kids were safe. A school staff member was sent to meet with the parents waiting at the school.

The class still stopped in Occidental to eat dinner as planned, then returned to campus around 8:45 p.m.—two hours after their expected arrival.

One student described it as a roller-coaster day, Ms. Cassel said. Already, the ropes course had pushed students’ boundaries with heights and problem solving. “This is an extremely traumatic experience,” she said. “It’s going to take some time for all of us to work through our thoughts and feelings.”

The person who claimed to be a reporter was released after detectives determined he did not commit a crime. The four masked suspects who were arrested were identified through fingerprints as Emma Borhanian, a 28-year-old from Albany; Jack Lasota, a 28-year-old from Berkeley; Alexander Leatham, a 24-year-old with an unknown residence; and Gwen Danielson, a 25-year-old homeless woman. All four were arrested for felony child endangerment, felony false imprisonment, felony conspiracy, misdemeanor resisting arrest, wearing a mask while committing a crime, and trespassing.

“I am incredibly grateful to the Shoreline staff—Julie Cassel, Glenda Mejia and Dan Wood—whose excellent judgment and calm response to the matter ensured that our students were safe and knew that they were well cared for,” Shoreline superintendent Bob Raines wrote in an email to the Light.