Students, staff, and police acted quickly in response to a threat issued against Fairland Public Schools reported Wednesday morning.
FAIRLAND - There's an odd coincidence in the timing of the school lockdown and subsequent arrests made after a social media threat of violence was reported by students before 9 a.m. Wednesday at Fairland Middle /High School. The threat occurred exactly one month after the tragic shooting deaths of 17 Florida school students.
According to Fairland Police Chief Aaron Richardson, three Fairland male juveniles, two 16-year-olds and one 17-year-old, were arrested for making terroristic threats to the schools.
“Just as school was starting, students reported to the High School Principal Jerry Johnson about a video and pictures that were sent to several other students in the school district on a social media platform," said Richardson. "The text on the pictures indicated that there was going to be an act of violence on school property. As a result of watching and seeing that video and the information, the school principal immediately placed all the schools on lockdown.
“Mr. Johnson went to where he knew the video had originated and was sent from that student. He actually went to the classroom and pulled that student and segregated him from the rest of the student body for their protection until law enforcement could get there.”
The video was sent from a location on school grounds recognizable to Johnson and as the police investigation progressed the involvement of other students was soon determined.
“As a result, we discovered that there were two other juvenile males involved in either the making or the distribution of that video. They were also taken into custody. All are students at Fairland High School,” Richardson said. “The indications are these boys thought it was a joke, and although it may have been a joke, we haven't totally confirmed that yet. Obviously, no one else thought it was a joke. It was alarming and it was a specific threat, and it was treated as such.”
In what appears to be purely by coincidence, the threat came close to the time Fairland students had planned to meet in a memorial for the 17 Florida Parkland High School victims killed one month ago.
“The threat indicated there was going to be an imminent threat of violence occur on school property. It was extremely troubling because our student body and school was going to participate in the memorial service at 10 o'clock for Florida school shooting victims like all the other schools across the country,” Richardson said. “Because of this, they had to spend all of their time in lockdown, although the memorial was held later in the day. There's never a good time for something like this, but it was extra troubling today.”
Richardson said he does not believe the social media threat was connected to the memorial, or that the juveniles were even aware of the planned event.
He said later, “The investigation revealed that three Fairland High School students had either produced, distributed or was aware of the making of the video. Those subjects were subsequently arrested for making terroristic threats and turned over to juvenile authorities. Indications are that the three young men thought that sending the video to their friends and classmates would be a funny joke. It wasn't.”
Richardson credited the students who reported the social media posts with thwarting any further possible action.
“We have a really good working relationship with our school district so we've been training for the last few years on school violence. We just had, myself and the school principal, had an assembly last Friday with every 8th grader and up, talking about these kind of issues, and how in almost every one of these incidences somebody knew about them, or knew there was a threat before it happened, and that they needed to report it. Students are actually the number one line of defense for their own safety, that they have to report stuff, and thankfully some students reported this. Whether it was an actual true threat that was imminent to occur, I don't know, but I can tell you their quick action in reporting it triggered our quick response in solving it,” he said.
Students, teachers and community members staying aware, and working together is one of the most effective ways to stop school violence, according to Richardson.
“I'd rather investigate 20 of these that end up being a misunderstanding or a bad joke before we ever have something that wasn't. So even if kids aren't sure, I encourage then to tell somebody, tell their parents, tell the staff, they're the ones who are going to see this stuff long before we will,” he said.
If there is any positive value to such events, Wednesday's event helped iron out system glitches, tested emergency plans, and proved reporting works and is taken seriously.
“ I will tell you, Mr. Johnson, he immediately without having any regards for his own safety, he immediately went and pulled the one boy he knew was involved away from the student body and segregated him. I want to give kudos to him and all the departments and investigators who helped, and are still assisting us; the Wyandotte Nation Tribal Police, Ottawa County Sheriff's Office, the County's Juvenile Service Unit, the Ottawa County District Courts and District Attorney's Office – we called for help and they came running and we appreciate it.”
The investigation is still underway, according to Richardson.
“So far there were no weapons found on the kids or in their possession, on school grounds, or in their vehicles,” he said. “All indications are there were no weapons in this portion of whatever their action was. We're still in the early stages and there may be more searches coming. We've got a lot of interviews to do, but so far, it doesn't appear that there were any weapons actually procured for an imminent attack.”
Richardson said for the rest of the week an extra police presence will be assigned to Fairland Schools.
“You'll see us more for the next couple of days around the school at the request of the district schools just to alleviate any fear or nerves students or parents may have about their safety. It's just as a precaution. We do not have any further information of anything else or other events or threats,” he said.
Richardson said Fairland is a tight-knit community with a heavily involved police department, a legacy left by Fairland's late Police Chief Tony Wiseley.
“I know about every kid in the school district, I go to the ballgames and events, I know them by name. We're a close group, and we don't want anything to happen to any of these students,” Richardson said. “In the summertime at the park we have kids who play basketball and it started with Tony, we'd get out and play basketball and we still do. I enjoy that. I think law enforcement isn't just here to arrest people and take them to jail; we are helpers of the community. We'll do whatever we can to help our student body. ”
Richardson posted the following the next day on the department’s Facebook page, “As the Chief of Police, I want to take this opportunity to stress to not only our students, but to all of our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters, pay attention to what your kids are doing on social media. Talk to them about the dangers of what is posted and the consequences of their actions. Even if it is meant as a joke. Be sure that they think twice before hitting the 'send' button.”
He added, “This incident has affected a lot of lives, including those of the accused offenders and their families. The entire student body was disrupted. Parents were notified that their children were being 'sheltered in place' and they become immediately worried. The school staff and administrators have to quickly switch gears from being educators to being protectors of our children. Law Enforcement officers from the area had to drop what they were doing and respond to our community to a perceived credible threat.”
Editor's Note: This article is the updated version of the original published online on March 14, 2018, to include additional comments and updates on the ongoing investigation.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.