Parents of students at S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Riverside, concerned about the assault by an intruder on a girl in a school restroom, on Monday, Aug. 22, called for new security measures as officials grappled with the realities of a school built 35 years ago that leaves the campus vulnerable in today’s world.
Logan Allen Nighswonger, 32, remained jailed without bail Monday on suspicion of being a registered sex offender on a school campus and attempted sodomy on a child younger than 10 years old. The Riverside Police Department said that on Friday, Aug. 19, Nighswonger scaled a 6-foot-high chain link fence and accosted a third grader during lunch period. A campus supervisor saw a man leave the restroom and chased him. The supervisor reported the man’s description and the license number of his car, and a second employee photographed the man. The Riverside police Metro team arrested Nighswonger at 4:30 p.m. in Placentia.
“I’m happy that we were able to catch him within a few hours, so that was relieving,” Antoinette Nash said Monday morning after dropping off her 7-year-old second grader. “But it’s still a major concern for future events that (could) happen. I just hope we do a little more than say ‘This happened’ and hope it doesn’t happen again.”
Angie Alaniz wants police on campus.
“That would be an absolute ask,” she said after bringing her son and daughter to their transitional kindergarten class. “It would be reassuring as a parent when you drop off your children to know there is an officer on school grounds.”
Alvord Unified School District Superintendent Allan Mucerino was at the school Monday assuring parents that district leadership is taking action.
The school, in response to the attack, is creating a parent patrol in which volunteers — after passing a background check — will be assigned a location to watch during drop-off, pickup and recess. Students will use the “buddy system” when using the restroom. The bathroom where the girl was assaulted has been closed, Mucerino said, because it is not easily watched from a distance. Patrols are being increased around the perimeter and other locations. And a review is being done to determine whether supervisors were in the correct places and if anything could have been done differently to prevent the intrusion.
The district, which serves parts of the western Riverside and northeast Corona areas, was already in the midst of reviewing security at all its schools, Mucerino said, and had established an Office of School Safety in summer 2021.
Talk on Monday focused on the fence at the campus in the city’s La Sierra neighborhood. Officials presumed the attacker entered by climbing over the fence, Mucerino said, because he did not enter through the only other access point: the locked office.
Nash wasn’t sure how to make the fences more difficult to climb over.
“I don’t know. Barbed wire, make them higher,” she said.
Alaniz shook her head when asked whether she thought the fence was adequate.
“I can jump the fence,” she said before adding: “There’s talk that the fence can be taller, but people are so cruel out there, that they will find a way.”
The school opened in 1987, one year after McAuliffe, a teacher, died along with six other astronauts in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The fence rings the kindergarten-through fifth-grade school that has some 640 students.
“Our fences were all put in a long time ago when we were developing schools that welcomed people and weren’t designed to keep people out,” Mucerino said.
And like many schools constructed in that era, Mucerino said, a park was built alongside McAuliffe, one that now attracts transients. Campus supervisors frequently patrol that park, the superintendent said.
“When they built the park it was an awesome thing,” he said. “It’s not a great thing anymore.”
A drainage wash outside the north end of the campus also attracts transients, Nash said. She used to walk her son to school, but after Ke Chieh Meng, 64, was stabbed to death nearby in April 2021 by what police said was a homeless woman, Nash began driving him.
Some McAuliffe parents said they were displeased that the first message from the district, sent the afternoon of the attack, said merely that the school had been placed on lockdown after someone had climbed the fence and was later chased off campus.
Mucerino said Monday that the district did not want to report information it could not yet confirm. Officer Ryan Railsback, a spokesman for the Riverside Police Department, said Nighswonger had not yet been arrested when parents were initially notified, and that putting out too much information could have jeopardized officers’ ability to quickly arrest him.
The district plans a town hall meeting for parents Thursday, Aug. 25, Mucerino said. A time had not been announced Monday.
Riverside police had arrested Nighswonger before.
In 2015, he exposed himself to six girls ages 9-11 near Mark Twain Elementary School, Superior Court records show. He pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor annoying or molesting a child. He was sentenced to 365 days in jail — a sentence that was suspended — and three years probation. Nighswonger was ordered to register as a sex offender, which meant he was prohibited from living or going near schools and parks.
Staff writer Scott Schwebke contributed to this report.