by Chris Harris
A 15-year-old girl is facing terroristic threatening charges after an event that had students at Southwestern High School grounded on Friday.
The juvenile suspect, whose name was not released by the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department as a matter of policy, allegedly sent threatening text messages to two female classmates.
The school responded by placing all students under full supervision until the issue was resolved and restricting their movement throughout the day, according to Sonya Wilds, Assistant Superintendent of Pulaski County Schools.
Wilds clarified that the action taken by the school was not a lockdown — “That’s where they lock all the doors and people can’t come in or go out,” she noted — but rather students stayed in the same classroom all day and were escorted to other locations like the lunchroom by a teacher.
“(Students) are used to going to the school store or the library,” she said. “(Full supervision) means they don’t change classes and do what they usually do.”
The situation began at about 11:30 a.m., when a teacher was notified about the threatening messages that were allegedly sent.
Deputy Bobby Jones of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department said that the suspect had used an app program called TextNow that creates text-like messages, but makes it more difficult to identify from whom they came.
Jones said that the suspect sent messages to the two other girls — all freshmen, according to Wilds — and to a male student. The message to the male student was more “vulgar” in nature, said Jones, and is not expected to carry any charges from the sheriff’s department at this time.
The suspect also sent a similar text message to herself, said Jones, which made her appear like one of the victims at first.
“Students had come forward with threats on their phone that someone was going to kill them,” said Jones. “In those threats, they actually describe the children’s clothing that they were wearing, so that really alarmed the person.”
Jones said that he’d sent out a subpoena for the phone number, and investigators were in the process of trying to trace the messages back to the IP address on the phone, “but something that takes some time to do,” he said. It was around 3 p.m., the end of the school day, when the suspect was identified, and Jones was getting ready to confiscate phone from students in a couple of different classes.
“We didn’t want the phones to leave the school with the end of the day approaching because they might have evidence on them and that could be erased,” said Jones. “We knew it had to be in one of those two classes because (of the clothing description).”
It was the process of interviewing students, however, that pointed investigators in the suspect’s direction.
“We learned that one particular name kept coming up to us several times,” said Jones. “We interviewed her. She said that she had, in fact, made the threats as a joke.
“I think she did things that she regrets having done,” he added. “It was already out there and she got more and more scared the bigger it was getting.”
Jones said that the suspect is “looking at terroristic threatening charges” — two counts, one for each of the other two girls — but that as of Friday evening, investigators were still trying to determine the severity, whether first-, second-, or third-degree. The highest penalty would be a Class D felony with one to five years in prison, but the fact that the suspect is a juvenile would likely have an effect on how she’s charged, noted Jones.
The detective also said the apparent scenario of a “prank gone bad” could also potentially lessen the severity of the suspect’s charges.
“If it had been more and she was actually intending to kill them, then it would be more severe,” said Jones. “... We confirmed that it was not a legitimate threat, she doesn’t even own a gun, her parents don’t own a gun.”
Whether or not the suspect enters a juvenile detention facility was also in question Friday night, said Jones. “That will be up to the judge,” said Jones.
The detective stressed that issues like this may seem like pranks to students, but are in reality no laughing matter.
“This tied up my entire date, and (the days of) several other detectives, all the school resource officers; we all have other crimes going on, other things to do,” he said. “Parents left work to pick their kids up. Children at school were legitimately frightened, and that’s just uncalled for. If it was just a prank gone bad, that’s one thing, but to let it go on and on and on, that’s another.”
Wilds issued a statement on Facebook earlier in the day explaining the situation regarding student movement in an effort to inform parents.
“We appreciate the wonderful students we have,” she said, “and regret that it takes just one making a poor decision to cause such disruption.”