Police: Journal entry detailed Clover student's plan to kill classmate

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 31, 2014 

— A Clover Middle School student whose journal entries detailed his plans to kill a classmate was criminally charged after deputies determined his threats were credible, police documents show.

School officials praised the students who found the boy’s writings and reported it to administrators. “Had the students not seen it and (not) said something, we don’t know what would have happened,” said Mychal Frost, Clover schools spokesman.

On Monday, a student told a teacher, who then told the principal, that a boy, 14, wrote in his journal threatening messages that included his desire to shoot a classmate, also 14, with a shotgun, according to a York County Sheriff’s report. Administrators removed the boy from the classroom and searched him, but did not find any weapons. The boy told officials he does not own a shotgun and did not want to talk about weapons.

When administrators pressed the boy about his journal, he “admitted he wrote the messages because he resented the way” mutual friends chose to sit with the other boy, not him, the report states. He also said he is angry with the boy and his family because of their material possessions.

Officials seized other writings from the boy about threats of violence he made on another date, the report states. School officials said both boys had been counseled in an attempt to resolve an ongoing dispute. During questioning, deputies noted the boy seemed “jovial and nonchalant about this incident,” the report states.

The boy boasted that while at home, he’s had previous contact with “neighborhood law enforcement” about his behavior, the report states. Deputies said they believed the boy’s threats were “credible,” although he did not directly confront the other teen. He did, police say, leave his journal out so classmates could read it.

The teenage suspect was disciplined according to school policy. He was charged with first-degree assault and battery, a felony carrying a maximum 10 years in prison, and taken to a juvenile holding facility at the York County Detention Center. Under state law, the charge includes a person’s offer or attempt to injure another person with “the present ability to do so.”

“Any threat, whether written or verbal, is taken very seriously,” Frost said on Friday.

School officials gauge the credibility of a threat by finding whether there is a written plan “detailing what a particular action might be,” he said. They also assess whether the student making the threat has specified a time and date – “when said plan would be executed.” If either one or both of those factors are identified, the threat becomes credible.

“In this particular case, we felt that it did rise to that level because a plan was written,” he said. “The intent was written on paper, and it was observed by other students in a classroom.”

Frost would not say what disciplinary measures were taken against the boy, citing student privacy laws. But, according to Clover schools policy, the boy’s actions are considered bullying because there was an established pattern of negative behavior between the two boys before Monday’s incident. The boy who was charged had been disciplined in the past for other incidents involving his would-be victim. Discipline for bullying includes suspension and, if necessary, expulsion, depending on the severity of the situation.

“You have to take those kinds of threats seriously and address them,” said Chris Dorn, a safety analyst with Safe Havens International, a schools safety consulting firm.

“There have been numerous instances in the past” where students have exhibited behavior indicating plans for future violent actions, Dorn said. He used the 2007 mass shootings at Virginia Tech as an example. An English teacher reported shooter Seung-Hi Cho’s disturbing writings before he shot and killed 33 peopleand wounded 17 others before committing suicide.

“It’s important we don’t under-react,” Dorn said. “In general terms, we want to find a way to investigate the threat and determine the credibility, and how to best serve the student who made the threat” by probing whether the student’s actions are a cry for help requiring mental health, law enforcement or social services intervention. School safety experts, he said, discourage schools from using suspension and expulsion as the only means of responding to concerning threats by students.

Suspensions “push the student further away from school ... (a) support network. Instead of keeping that student under our watch and giving the support they need to address (the problem),” he said. “Now, when we expel or suspend them ... we’re letting them go away from school, putting them further away from that support network.”

‘Courage to report’

Recent school tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., and the Arapahoe High School shooting in Centennial, Colo., have not changed the way Clover schools respond to student-made threats, Frost said. Before those incidents, the policies currently in place to deal with threats were the same.

“If you’re looking for the line in the sand when things shifted, it would have been in April 1999 following Columbine,” Frost said. Still, “discipline and threats were and have been handled with extreme importance and direct action ... pre- and post-Columbine.”

Frost commended the Clover Middle School students who saw the boy’s journal and “had the courage to report it.”

“We’ve encouraged students, staff, visitors and volunteers at the schools to be more vigilant and don’t be shy,” he said. “If you see a stranger in the building, ask them who they are, what they need.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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