By Carissa Joines & Chad Nance
Editor’s Note: All of the names of students, parents, and police detectives have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of these families and protect the safety of police officers who may work in plain clothes or under-cover.
“This model is not a “profile” of the school shooter or a checklist of danger signs pointing to the next adolescent who will bring lethal violence to a school. Those things do not exist. Although the risk of an actual shooting incident in any one school is very low, threats of violence are potentially a problem in any school. Once a threat is made, having a fair, rational, and standardized method of evaluating and responding to threats is critically important.”
– ”The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective”, The Federal Bureau of Investigation
“You have to prove it was a joke.”
– Winston-Salem Police Officer to a 14 year-old boy
On Monday, June 14th 2015, the first of what CCD has been told will be several lawsuits was filed by a parent against the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board. The lawsuit includes a laundry list of serious rights violations of both students and parents who have been unwillingly caught up in the hysteria following reports of a threat by a child against the faculty and students of one of Winston-Salem’s most academically rigorous institutions Atkins High School.
Just watching the news feed these days can nearly paralyze the hearts of most us who are parents. What can happen to our children when they leave what should be the safest place on the planet- our homes -seizes us up with fear and trepidation. But what happens when the threat begins to come from those who are supposed to be the protectors? Even well intentioned men and women can take things too far in their attempts to make all of us feel “safe”.
Time and time again we’ve seen this pattern. A horrible event takes place and folks allow their good sense to override their sense of dignity, righteousness, and basic fairness. Real people become collateral damage in this quest for “safety” in the 21st Century. A young person can scar their entire lives with a click of the mouse or a slip of the tongue. A parent can see their own rights violated as their bank account is drained and the weight of the world descends on their family like Sisyphus’s boulder. A concerned school administrator can tank a storied career by taking bad advice. A police officer can overstep their oath and betray themselves and their community. In the end we all want our children to be and to feel safe, but at what price? There is a sacred trust between parents and those who watch over our children. Yet the question remains… who watches the watchmen?
The FBI has a report listing suggestions for dealing with school violence which was compiled and written in the wake of the Columbine school shootings. In it the FBI makes recommendations to local school systems and law enforcement about how to evaluate and assess any threat made to a school. According to the report:
Educators, mental health professionals, legislators, law enforcement officers, parents, students, and the rest of the public all share a sense of frustration and helplessness and a compulsion to take some quick action that can prevent similar incidents in the future. Though understandable, this impulse can lead communities to forget the wisdom of H. L. Mencken’s aphorism: “For every problem, there is a solution which is simple, neat, and wrong.” In a knee-jerk reaction, communities may resort to inflexible, one-size-fits-all policies on preventing or reacting to violence.
In this case, after verbal “threats” of violence were made by one student, administrators and police began questioning multiple students without their parents or an attorney present. They were questioning them about possible felonies. Their answers could have life changing implications, yet there were no assessments by trained psychologist or personnel trained to communicate with and assess the behaviors of students with disabilities. According to court documents, one of the kids charged is on the Autism Spectrum. Another child who was expelled in this incident has ADHD. According to parents involved, at no time during this “investigation” were mental health or disability experts brought into the process.
CCD has confirmed that 6 students have been expelled from Atkins this year, and based on information gathered, at least 5, possibly all 6, of those were involved in this incident. (To put this in perspective, only 4 students were expelled district-wide in the last year reported and only 34 high schoolers were expelled in the whole state during that same period.) Two of the expelled students have been charged with criminal offenses. Two additional students connected to this matter were suspended, one of whom has been allowed to return to school and the other has moved out of state.
As the FBI has indicated:
It is especially important that a school not deal with threats by simply kicking the problem out the door. Expelling or suspending a student for making a threat must not be a substitute for careful threat assessment and a considered, consistent policy of intervention. Disciplinary action alone, unaccompanied by any effort to evaluate the threat or the student’s intent, may actually exacerbate the danger– for example, if a student feels unfairly or arbitrarily treated and becomes even angrier and more bent on carrying out a violent act.
The lawsuit filed Monday is in response to “hearings” held by the school system in which school officials and law enforcement served as not only investigators, but judge, jury and executioner of expulsion notices. While the motive for such egregious overstep is unclear, it is evident that the school system thought that they could get away with it, or just didn’t care what happened as long as they were seen as having kept the children “safe.” They didn’t care that the lives of two students who have been arrested, charged with making false threats, and expelled from school, as well as the lives of 4 more students who have been expelled for not telling on those students, have been forever altered. Perhaps the saddest part about all of it was, the kids at Atkins weren’t kept safe.
School administrators and police never seemed to have any real idea what the threat was or if it even existed. Considering the wide net and arbitrary way the investigation was handled, there was never a moment where safety was guaranteed, yet parents were never told that authorities didn’t really know what was going on. Parents were just told all is well and were never given an opportunity to make their own minds up using solid, reliable information. The students, themselves, were exposed to the worst of paranoia and the decimation of basic rights guaranteed to all Americans in the Constitution of the United States as suspicion and rumor ran rampant while kids were encouraged to inform on one another.
The number of people involved in this matter is staggering. First, there is the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, who had to approve the expulsions. These were required to first be presented at the recommendation of the principal and of the School Superintendent, Beverly Emory (who admitted to hiring an unlicensed private detective to follow around students and parents at her last posting in Pitt county, NC.). Atkins Principal Joe Childers is a career educator who has worked his way from various teaching positions to becoming the award-winning principal of Hanes Magnet School in 2005, before moving to become principal at Atkins in 2010. Robin Willard has served in many educational positions and prior to coming to the assistant principal position at Atkins, served in the same capacity at Carver High. Araunah “AJ” James was the assistant principal at Atkins until just after this investigation was finished. He has now left the school system and taken a job as a principal in Scotland County, North Carolina. James was nicknamed “The Predator” by some students, due in part to his physical stature and braided hair, and in part to his habit of lurking around the school looking for something that might be out of line. Other students have referred to James as a “stalker” or having the ability to “teleport” for his lurking behaviors and ability to seemingly pop out of a wall and question or accuse students.
There are the school system attorneys, who instead of advising the school system and board on what was actually legal, seemed to seek to make legal, or sweep under a rug, the actions that administrators and police had taken at Atkins. Allison “Ali” Tomberlin (general counsel) and Dionne Jenkins (associate general counsel) and Amy Rich (assistant attorney) were all involved in the expulsion hearings.
There are several officers from the Winston-Salem Police Department involved. These officers conducted searches of student homes. Others conducted interrogations with students at Atkins, walking students into these interviews with badges and weapons visible before sitting down with them behind closed doors to be questioned by James without notifying their parents that this was going on. The school resource officer, or SRO, at Atkins, who is a sworn officer and wears full uniform with weapon to school, is Fleurette Gregory Phillips.
Search warrants in the case were issued by Superior Court Judge L. Todd Burke. The judge has had his own problems with the community and the City of Winston-Salem since he purchased East Winston property under a grant program and never developed it according to the contracts he signed upon purchase. Charges of nepotism continue to dog him in the case, as his father was a North Carolina state representative and his mother is long-time City Councilwoman Vivian Burke. According to a 2014 article by investigative journalist Jordan Green, “A judicial performance evaluation report released by the NC Bar Association in 2012 ranked Burke second to last among 13 superior court judges across the state, based on criteria that included integrity, legal ability and professionalism.” Burke has sealed all of the information and warrants connected to the Atkins case, which multiple defense attorneys have told CCD is “unprecedented” in their professional experience.
And then there are the students and their families. Just over 600 students attend Atkins, all of whom have been impacted by this incident and the culture at the school which allowed the incident to happen in the first place. But for four students who have been expelled, at least two others who were suspended, and the other two students who were arrested and expelled, this incident is nothing short of a hellish nightmare.
How did it get this far?
The nightmare began on April 10th 2015, when administrators became aware that a student, “Bobby”, had began to pull other students aside and tell them that he was going to shoot up the school. This claim was based on another student’s report to administrators that they had heard Bobby was going to do a “drive-by” at Atkins on April 15th. (Bobby can’t drive nor does he have access to a car.) The lawsuit filed Monday contends that Bobby is on the Autism Spectrum. According to sources at Atkins and his own words to Principal Joe Childers, Bobby was under the impression that he would be suspended from school for making such statements and saw that as an opportunity for a break from class.
People who are on the Autism spectrum have considerable difficulties with cause and effect relationships. These individuals struggle with seeing an experience from another person’s perspective, or understanding which actions or consequences can be transferred to another situation. The world of a person with Autism is often black and white, but those absolutes are often defined by their own sense of the world. An individual with Autism typically needs any social situation, cause and effect relationship, or societal norm explained or interpreted for them to truly understand the interactions most of us engage in unconsciously. Bobby’s lack of understanding about the severity of consequences related to the “threats” he was making would have been reasonable for any 15 year-old boy, but particularly for one with Autism.
The rumor about the alleged shooting plot quickly travelled around the school, and as school scuttlebutt often does, swelled to claims that Bobby had stood up in the lunchroom and loudly announced these intentions to anyone who would listen.
Bobby was interviewed on Friday, April 10th by Principal Joe Childers. Another student, “Greg” was also questioned on that day. Greg is said to have been in the top ten in his class at Atkins, and has been described as a good kid who wanted to go into the military upon graduation.
According to student and parent reports, Greg was brought in after something in the interview with Bobby made school administrators feel he had some connection to the situation. These parents have said that there were Kik messages (internet based texting) and Skype conversations at the center of the investigation. The Kik messages included some of the Skype group members, but not all of them. The school system regularly interchanged and confused the two groups, in spite of the fact that they are different applications with different functions and each had different students in the groups.
On that Friday, no notice went out to parents of Atkins students regarding these threats. Sources say that Bobby initially convinced Childers that it was joke, and that is why nothing was done. However, at some point over the weekend, school personnel including Childers decided that it was not a joke. The WSPD has acknowledged that they initiated a joint investigation into the matter on the 10th. Whether it was at the direction of the police department or at the request of the school administrators, an investigation was opened and officers were present on campus by Monday the 13th.
Terms like a “Level Four Incident”, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, “Terrorism”, and “Columbine Level Event” quickly made their way into conversations about the case between school officials, law enforcement, and the District Attorney’s office. While these terms are certainly inflammatory, none of them is an accurate description of what had occurred.
Perhaps what happened next was all a frightened reaction by well-meaning people, but as the FBI reported states:
In the shock-wave of recent school shootings, this reaction may be understandable, but it is exaggerated — and perhaps dangerous, leading to potential underestimation of serious threats, overreaction to less serious ones, and unfairly punishing or stigmatizing students who are in fact not dangerous. A school that treats all threats as equal falls into the fallacy formulated by Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
While Bobby’s actions can in no way be condoned, it is believed that his understanding of the punishment for such a statement could have been influenced by an event that previously occurred at Atkins. Students and parents who CCD spoke to on the condition of anonymity indicated that earlier in the school year, a student threatened an Atkins’ English teacher, reportedly stating that he would kill the teacher. This incident occurred in full view of other students. While documentation of this event is not available, it is believed that the student was given a brief suspension (3 days) for their threat then was allowed to return to the school. This suspension would be in accordance with the the Student/Parent Handbook for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools which classify communicating a threat as a “Level III” offense that would result in a short term suspension not to exceed five days. “Level III” also includes gang activity.
While Bobby himself may have been making a “threat” out of a misunderstanding of the consequences, the actions of the administration were made with full understanding of the policies and procedural guidelines of the school system and their consequences of executing their power.
By Monday, April 13th James had begun to call students out of class, and, along with the SRO, and Willard, began questioning other students about Bobby’s threats and the possibility of gang activity at the school. Many of these students, as CCD reported previously, had disabilities. None of them were informed of their right to not incriminate themselves and none of their parents were informed that this was even going on.
Students have told CCD that both Bobby and Greg were allowed to be at Atkins on the 13th, in spite of the fact that the school administration had, by then, supposedly decided that they represented a violent threat to Atkins’ students, staff, and faculty.
When Greg was interviewed he reportedly told James and the police that he had hidden guns in the home of another student, “Daniel”. Daniel’s house was subsequently searched by a crew of fully armed police officers. His father was home sick at the time and allowed the search without a warrant or having contacting a lawyer. The police thoroughly searched the boy’s room and other locations in the house but found no weapons. One parent described what they did find as “nerd stuff” like Pokemon and Smash Brothers video games. The police took Daniel’s cell phone and took a laptop and a tablet. According to Daniel’s parents, after the student told police that the entire thing had been a “joke”, a police officer told the young man that he would have to “prove it was a joke”.
As an officer of the law, it is hoped that this policeman was using that as an intimidation method, and did not truly believe that statement. The reality is that in America everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Recently decided Supreme Court precedent is that authorities must show clear intent to do real harm in order to convict someone of making actual threats. According to that ruling, prosecutors take into account the state of mind of the person as well as prove that reasonable people would view statements as threats.
On the 13th of April, another student was also pulled in for questioning. He is currently one of the the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday. “Peter” is a 16 year old kid with no prior history of disciplinary issues, behavioral problems, mental or emotional issues, or criminal activity of any kind. According to his parents, Peter earned mostly A’s and B’s and has held a job at a local small business since February.
Peter was brought into the office where he was questioned by James with the SRO present. Willard was present for about 10 minutes. Peter was not offered an opportunity to have a parent or an attorney with him. During his questioning, Peter admitted to being a member of “Atkins Mafia” which is not a gang but an online group of seven Atkins students who chat on Skype. In court documents, Peter referred to this group as a “clique”. According to parents, Bobby asked to join the Skype group, but other kids said no. These kids described him as someone who was not perceived as studious or in other ways like the kids in the group. This kind of reputation can put someone on the outside looking in at a school where being smart is prized over being “cool”.
Some of these students also play video games online via the STEAM video game aggregation site in a group called “The Atkins High Drive-by”. Peter had been a part of the “mafia” since the beginning of the school year, but the group had been in existence for a couple of years before that when the bulk of the students involved were in middle school together at Hanes. Two of them were reported to be in JROTC together.
According to his parents, Peter’s user name for the Skype group was “The Dark Lord Himself.” While administrators tried to paint this choice of an internet handle as sinister, the reality is that Peter took the name from YouTuber Filthy Frank, whose shows have a character Chin-Chin who is also known as the Dark Lord. Peter’s profile picture on Skype was of Pink Guy, another character in the videos who wears a pink hooded leotard and is supposed to be a “lycra entity”. It is stunning that administrators running a school where video game design and high-tech gadgets like 3-D printers are the norm seem to have no idea at all about internet and tech culture.
Peter also told his interrogators that he thought the Skype posts were a joke. At the time Peter provided a brief written statement that “everyone in the group talks about doing stuff, but never doing it.”
Peter’s parents were not notified of the questioning. At this point, no parents had even been notified that this “investigation” was being conducted. Peter also was not apprised of his rights, in spite of the fact that he was being questioned about a possible mass murder plot and his answers- the answers of a 16 year-old boy with no adult present to advocate for him or protect his rights- could ruin his life from that moment forward.
The school officials were claiming to operate under a shaky legal concept called in loco parentis in order to conduct these investigations. While the application of this doctrine means that teachers and administrators can perform some of the responsibilities or functions of a parent, it does not mean that they can obstruct students’ Constitutional Rights or function instead of a parent, especially not without the parent’s notification. (For example, a school official can administer medications at the request of a parent, but cannot make the decision to administer medications without the parent’s consent.) As a legal concept in America, in loco parentis itself had fallen out of favor and legal usage by the early 1960’s. It was only after the Columbine shootings in 1999 that the concept popped back up and began to be applied to cases such of this- rarely successfully.
Did these kids do some dumb, immature things? Absolutely. Was it criminal? There is still no proof that it was. There is no evidence that they were making direct threats, but were merely going back and forth with friends in teenage, sometimes overly macho, hyperbole and discussions.
Atkins parents were not notified of the investigation or threats until the evening of April 13th, when they received an automated phone call from Principal Childers stating that some students had made threats of violence in a mass text and that the appropriate disciplinary measures had been applied. He stated that additional police officers would be present at the school as a precaution. Parents were not told that their student might be called in for questioning without their notice or that additional students were being sought in the matter. But the school, Childers said, was safe.
This was not, however, accurate. Not only were individual students that authorities would later claim were threats to the lives of people at Atkins still attending classes (which would have been a problem had they actually been plotting something), the questioning of additional students and the taking of punitive measures would go on for another week. Childers also misinformed parents that the threats had come over text messages. At the worst the principal mislead parents as to what the threat could have actually been and at best he had very little solid information with which to make the claim to parents that the school was in any way safe.
On that Monday the 13th, after school, Peter’s mother received a voicemail from Willard informing her that there was an issue at the school regarding her son. The phone message did not say that he had been interrogated that day. His mom returned the call and left voice mail but never heard from Willard. Greg was still at school on this day, and it is believe that Bobby was as well.
On Tuesday the 14th, Peter’s father reached Willard by phone. WIllard informed him that his son would be questioned by the police at school. Peter’s parents went to Atkins to be with their son for this interview. Peter was interrogated by Detectives J. and V. of the WSPD. The officers asked him for his phone, but then reversed themselves stating that they didn’t need it. At that time, Peter’s parents told the detectives and WIllard that they did not want their son interrogated by the police and school administrators without either themselves or Peter’s attorney in the room.
That evening, the 14th, Atkins families received another phone call from Joe Childers stating that school officials were “continuing to work with the police to investigate the situation regarding the students who were discussing violence at school,” and that there would be additional officers on campus again as a precaution. No details were given about the nature or seriousness of the threat. Once more, students who would later be expelled because they were deemed a real threat to safety were still attending school. Parents still had no idea if the school was safe or not, just vague assurances from administrators that all was well and they had things under control, even though they still seemed to have no real idea what was going on.
On Wednesday, April 15th around 100 students, including Peter, were kept home by their their parents. By then rumors had become rampant around the school and the number of students who were connected to the “Atkins Mafia” had grown to 18 in the popular imagination. Wednesday had previously been scheduled as an early release day. A talent show that had been scheduled was postponed as a safety precaution even though Principal Childers was still telling parents that everything was “safe”. According to students the cancellation was made because the talent show/auditorium was rumored to be scene of the so-called “shooting”.
According to sources, Wednesday was when the SRO claimed that she reviewed closed circuit television footage and identified all of the students who were in the lunch room discussing “shooting up” the school. The problem with that claim is that there would have been no way for her to have been able to hear particular conversations with the schools video cameras in the lunchroom. She may have been able to see video of kids who ate lunch around or near Bobby and Greg, but that was simply guilt by association and resulted in children being called from class and interrogated by James, Willard, and the SRO. Students and parents told CCD that innocent kids with disabilities such as Autism and minority students were called in and interrogated, including the young man with Autism that first brought this case to the attention of CCD. (You can read about that HERE.)
On Monday April 20, 2015, James phoned Peter’s father and told him that his son was being suspended for one day. When the boy’s father asked why, James said it was for being involved in a “terrorist plot”. James told Peter’s mother the same thing, but refused to elaborate or explain to what he was referring. James did say that he “was supposed to do this last Friday but I got busy.”
Peter went home at the end of the school day on April 20th with a unsigned suspension notice indicating that he was to be suspended for one school day beginning on April 21st. The form read that he was being suspended for the following: “[Peter] aided and assisted in a plot to carry out an act of terror (school shooting) by either not reporting as aware or encouraging others in the offense.” The notice cited School Board Policy 5131, Student Behavior, and/or AR5131, Code of Student Conduct.” The notice did not clearly describe the prohibited behavior other than it was a Level III violation. According to the Student-Parent Handbook a Level III violation applies to several offences from assault without a weapon, hazing, bullying, and communicating threats (also a criminal violation.) The penalty is a short-term, out of school suspension.
Mr. James suspended Peter without offering him an the required informal hearing with his parents present. Peter was not informed of any specific charges and was given no opportunity to present his own side or challenge his accuser.
On April 22, 2015 Peter returned to school. Although Peter’s parents had denied the school permission for the police to talk with him without them or his attorney, officers from the WSPD nevertheless questioned him and took his phone from him. Peter’s mother learned of the interview when she received a voicemail message from Cpl. K. stating he that interviewed Peter earlier that morning and took his cell phone. Peter’s mother called Cpl. K. back and reminded him that the police were not supposed to talk to him without a parent present. Cpl. K. asked to come by Peter’s home to pick up his laptop. Peter’s mother said she would need to speak to her attorney about the laptop. Cpl. K. cut the conversation short and then hung up the phone.
That evening Peter’s home was searched by the WInston-Salem Police Department.
Officers banged on the door, shaking the entire house. They yelled out that they had a warrant and that they would break in the door if it wasn’t opened right then. Peter’s 14 year-old sister was scared, and the dog barked excitedly.
Peter’s mom remembered when James, a large man, had put himself a half inch away from her face- close enough to feel his breath- trying to intimidate her as she asserted her right to have his actions regarding her son explained to her. She had restrained herself. As a United States military veteran she could have turned that bully several different ways if she wanted to in spite of her diminutive size. But she didn’t. She had a self control James doesn’t seem to possess. He is the same person who hung up on the mother of an Autistic child who had been questioned, mansplaining to her that she had become “Irrational” and “Emotional”.
The warrant included a list of books, electronic devices, and even the private journals and writings of Peter’s. The warrant included permission to take computers and other electronic devices as well as any weapons they found unsecured. More troubling the warrant seemed to be targeted at looking for specific books, anything related to justice for Mike Brown, the Trench Coat Mafia, or the World Trade Center. The warrant even allowed them to search for a book called “Serial Killers and Mass Murders”, and even information about the Holocaust. (Short stories, books, and essays about WWII and specifically the Holocaust are part of the Atkins curriculum.) This warrant was giving permission for police to search for more than the contents of Peter’s home- they wanted his thoughts and feelings too. This warrant has now been sealed by Judge Burke.
His mom let them in before they splintered door. Officers told the family to shut up the dog or they’ll shoot it. Peter’s mom complained about their behavior and they threatened to handcuff her. The police made her sit with her children on the couch while they began to search the house, including her own bedroom and that of her daughter’s. They went through her private things and her drawers in spite of the fact that neither mother nor daughter were the target of any investigation.
Peter’s mom looked over the warrant while she sat there, and asked what the officers were looking for. They told her that they are searching for weapons of mass destruction… In the possession of her 16 year old.
What do the officers find? A toy katana, a decorative martial arts sword that can be purchased at the mall. They seized all of Peter’s electronic devices. They also took a laptop that belonged to Peter’s father’s company and is used for his job. They started to take Peter’s mother’s computer as well, but after a plea to leave it because it is necessary for her to complete the school program she is in, they stopped short of taking her devices. They found a legally registered rifle belonging to Peter’s father and kept in the parent’s bedroom. This isn’t a high-tech assault rifle like those used in previous school shootings. This is a bolt-action .22 that only holds a few shells and is used to teach basic gun handling and safety to young sport shooters.
As the police were leaving Peter’s house one of them takes the time to tell his mother something that no one would never have expected a police officer to say to a law abiding citizen. The Corporal tells her “If you had given us his laptop none of this would have happened.”
It is worth noting that the police did not search Peter’s own personal vehicle, even though he was the only one of the Skype group members that has his driver’s license and a car.
Peter continued to attend school on April 23-24, 2015.
On Friday, April 24th, Peter’s father received a phone call from Childers stating that Peter was suspended for five days starting April 27th and that Childers was recommending Peter for expulsion. At this point Peter’s father realized that Childers believed Peter had been suspended for the full week of April 20-24th, in spite of the fact that he had served only a one day suspension on the 21st.
The five day suspension notice is for engaging “in conduct that demonstrates a clear threat to the safety of others in the school environment. This conduct was initially discovered on or about April 10, 2015, and since that date more information has been discovered which would indicate that EM is a threat to the safety of students, teachers, and others in the school environment. Specifically, the school believes EM plotted to carry out an act of mass violence at Atkins High School (school shooting), that he acted in concert and conspired with at least one other person, and that he would have carried out this act had police not intervened.”
In response to that notice, Peter’s parents met with the Principal without Peter present. Childers did not inform Peter’s parents of their right to have Peter dispute the charges at this meeting.
On April 27, 2015, Bobby and Greg were both arrested and charged with felonies for their involvement in this incident. Since police report only said that the students were charged with “criminal offenses” and the charges were sealed it is not clear exactly what the students were charged with. However, communicating false threats is typically a misdemeanor offense. There is a felony charge that carries a class H felony penalty entitled “Making a false report concerning mass violence on educational property.” This statute is applied to “A person who, by any means of communication to any person or groups of persons, makes a report, knowing or having reason to know the report is false, that an act of mass violence is going to occur on educational property or at a curricular or extracurricular activity sponsored by a school.” It is possible that this is the charge applied to the two students who were arrested.
On April 28, 2015, the day following the arrests, a hearing was conducted at the administrative offices of WSFCS. Immediately prior to the hearing, Peter and his attorney were presented with exhibits from the school system, leaving them no time to review and discuss them. At this hearing, Amy Rich, assistant attorney for the school system, served as hearing officer. She did not ever reveal her position with the school system, and had prior knowledge of the case and could not be impartial as a hearing officer.
During that hearing, Peter’s family claims in court documents that Rich asked questions and made findings of fact and conclusions that exceeded the intended scope of the hearing. She questioned Peter about a comment he made on Skype about a bomb going off in the school. (This comment was not made on Skype, but was in a text message after a fire alarm at the school.) Although this was not in the suspension notice and no evidence of the comment was presented by the school system’s representative attorney, the hearing officer nevertheless made a determination that Peter made terrorist threats when he made this comment.
After presenting the background of the school’s investigation into this incident, the school then presented evidence directly related to Peter. Peter freely admitted that he belonged to both the Skype group “Atkins Mafia” and the Steam group “Atkins Drive-by”. He said he did not take the other students’ Skype statements seriously as “everyone was always talking and never doing anything.” Although Rich acknowledged that when Peter was interviewed by James, Willard and the SRO, he said did not take the threats seriously, Rich held it against Peter that he did not specifically write in his statement that the Skype messages were “jokes.”
Officer S. of the Winston-Salem Police Department also testified at the hearing. According to court documents, he relied on his memory during the hearing, and made numerous errors, contradictions, and retractions of statements. Most damaging to Peter was Officer S’s testimony that Peter started a discussion on the Skype account about bringing an AR-15 rifle to school. Although Peter denied making this statement, the school system failed to present any photos of the Skype messages as proof of their statement. Rich found that Peter was “part of this group discussion,” even though no evidence was presented on that issue. Peter’s attorney pointed out to Officer S that the search warrant for Peter’s home stated that another student initiated the statement about the AR. The court documents state that Officer S responded both that the search warrant was wrong and he had not read the search warrant prior to searching Peter’s home and removing items. He also could not even recall whose homes he searched.
Deirdre Sommerlad-Rogers, the Chair of the Department of Sociology and the Director of the Criminal Justice Program at Greensboro College, told CCD, “Memory is essentially a reconstruction of past events and is susceptible to distortion and reinterpretation based on the situation in which the eyewitness is giving testimony, the length of time between the events in question and the testimony being given and the number of individuals allegedly involved. In this case the officer is being asked to recall his understanding of a situation and that recollection resulted in the expulsion of a number of students from the school. Since the officer was essentially providing testimony based on other people’s eyewitness testimony, at least a number of whom were present at the time of his testimony, and he was doing so strictly from “memory,” I would consider it less than fully reliable. It is also important to note that he was relying on memory because his case notes, the notes he made in order to keep track of the facts of the case specifically because memory can be unreliable, had allegedly been sealed by the court. Because he did not have his notes, he could not say, with any degree of certainty, that what he “remembered” was the same thing as what he had written down.”
Also at the hearing, Dionne Jenkins, counsel for the school system, Willard and Childers confused and Skype and Kik messages. WIllard testified that that all the provided screenshots were of the Skype group message even though the Skype and Kik message have a different appearance. It was on the Kik account that Bobby and Greg allegedly discussed a school shooting, but Peter did not receive the Kik group messages.
The hearing officer ultimately determined that Peter “made terrorist threats by “(1) telling the Skype group that there were bombs at Atkins that were supposed to go before the fire alarm; (2) stating to the Skype group that “everyone” would be wasted by the AR-15 assault rifle at school and (3) as a member of the Skype group, conspiring to threaten to commit an act of mass violence at Atkins”
Rich acknowledged that by the hearing date, three of the student’s home were searched, including Peter’s. She noted that guns, ammunition, trench coats and knives were found, but did not delineate which items were found in Peter’s home. She determined that any guns at Peter’s house were registered to his parents but were unsecured, even though they were not where Peter could have had control of them.
Peter was recommended for expulsion.
Just prior to Mother’s Day weekend, Daniel was cleared of all involvement in the incident and had his devices returned to him. He had served a suspension, but was never recommended for expulsion. He had been told that he would not be able to return to Atkins next year, but after an email appeal to an assistant superintendent, he was reassured that he could continue his career at the school.
On May 14th, a panel of three school board members – Vic Johnson, Deanna Taylor and board chair Dana Caudill-Jones – heard Peter’s appeal of Rich’s recommendation for expulsion.
On May 15th, Peter’s parents received an email with the Board panel’s decision to affirm the findings and conclusions of the hearing officer and uphold the expulsion. The panel offered to allow Peter to enroll in the Community Involvement Program during his expulsion. The Community Involvement Program is a special Alternative Education Program designed for long-term suspensions (LTS) and/or expelled students and offers Community Service, Behavior Modification, and Academic services to enrolled students.
On June 2nd, another student, “Chip” was expelled. Chip has significant ADHD. He was a member of the Skype group, and was expelled essentially for not telling anyone about the jokes the kids made in the group. His parents are expected to file their own lawsuit by the end of the month.
The lawsuit filed Monday contends that the Winston-Salem School Board exceeded its statutory authority, and engaged in unlawful procedures. It alleges that both school administrators and police made false statements, abused their authority, and violated the Constitutional Rights of these students and parents. In the filing the plaintiffs ask that their child be reinstated and be allowed to return to school. They ask that their student receive compensatory educational services provided by an outside educational agency to make up for time lost. They also request that all cost associated with this incident be paid by the school system, including attorney’s fees, and they request that the student’s record be expunged. No court date has been set in this case.
Six expulsions is a huge spike for any school. Normally that would indicate some terrible event that caused real material harm, but not in this case. In this case these students were expelled for various reasons ranging from making the threats to simply not reporting them because it was thought to be a joke. According to the Student-Parent handbook expulsion is considered a “Level VIII”. The offenses for a Level VIII include Assault Involving the use of a Weapon, Rape, Assault Resulting in a Serious Injury, Robbery with a Dangerous Weapon, possession of a gun or explosives, and even Homicide. What is not listed is Communicating Threats. A “Level VII” is a 365-day suspension and can be levied for Possession of a Firearm or Powerful Explosive. Only down at a “Level VI”, a long-term out of school suspension, do we get into even making a bomb threat. The rest of the offenses that can earn this penalty are related to drug dealing. Even when a student assaults a school staffer or robs another student they only get an alternative school assignment according to the Handbook. This is the same Handbook that comes home in a packet with a multitude of documents that must be signed for various reasons. Students and parents have to sign a slip that they read the Handbook along with other slips and forms then return the all to school. It is kind of like all of the stuff you click on and agree to in order to start an online account of any kind.
There is nothing in the Handbook, online, or at any other source that explains what the school system’s policy is concerning investigating threats of a mass, violent action by one or more attackers. Online you can find their evacuation and lock-down plans if someone actually attacked a school, but nothing on how just a threat will be dealt with.
The FBI recommends that local authorities form a threat assessment plan and make it public so that parents and students know what to expect. According to the FBI, “Threat assessment seeks to make an informed judgment on two questions: how credible and serious is the threat itself? And to what extent does the threatener appear to have the resources, intent, and motivation to carry out the threat?”
If in a case like this parents were notified that their children may be questioned by authorities without their knowledge and that warrants would be issued and property seized, would everyone in Forsyth County have agreed to those terms? We will never know because as far as anyone knows there is no Threat Assessment plan. There is certainly no publicly available guideline (as suggested by the FBI) for handling these situations for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. The FBI does not suggest that authorities only take the burden onto themselves or that all information about threats to the safety of our schools be covered up in a veil secrecy and half-truths. In fact the FBI has this to say:
“School shootings and other forms of school violence are not just a school’s problem or a law enforcement problem. They involve schools, families, and the communities. An adolescent comes to school with a collective life experience, both positive and negative, shaped by the environments of family, school, peers, community, and culture. Out of that collective experience come values, prejudices, biases, emotions, and the student’s responses to training, stress, and authority.”
Only a community can address these kinds of threats. The more we know the safer we feel and the safer we truly are. In this case the attempts to hide what was truly going on have only sewn doubt, fear, and now the acrimony (not to mention public-coffer draining) reality of a lawsuit. Safety doesn’t come from Star Chambers and cowboy policing. It comes from community engagement and a thoughtful, open plan to address danger. A few of us do not have to give up the most basic of rights so that the rest of us can feel safe, but we all can contribute to the watching of the watchmen and the village it takes to raise our children.
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