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Different threats, different outcomes

A look at recent threats made against Kershaw County schools

Posted: March 1, 2018 4:53 p.m.
Updated: March 2, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Jim Tatum/C-I

The new Camden Elementary School is taking shape on Laurens Street. As far as safety goes, KCSD officials said all new schools in the district will have a security entrance with a holding area where visitors have to be identified before they are allowed access to an office or reception area. Once that has occurred, visitors leaving the main office to enter the building will have to be “buzzed in” to gain access to the main hallways. There will also be security cameras and controlled access at all main outside doors.

Between Feb. 15 and 22, four students made separate threats to Kershaw County schools. Two cases involved Lugoff-Elgin High School (L-EHS). Another involved Leslie M. Stover Middle School (LSMS) outside Elgin. A fourth involved a threat made to Camden High School (CHS). Each case had a different outcome from the others, with only one -- the CHS case -- leading to an 11-year-old girl being petitioned to family court for a charge of disturbing schools.

According to a Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) report, on Thursday, Feb. 15 -- the day after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 dead -- the L-EHS’ school resource officer (SRO) heard a call over the school’s radio system that Principal Worth Thomasson wanted any administrator to find a 14-year-old male student and bring him to his office. Even though he was performing traffic duty, the SRO asked Thomasson over the radio if he needed to respond, and Thomasson said he did not. When the SRO finished directing traffic, he attempted to contact Thomasson to ask him whether he was still needed, but received no reply.

The SRO left campus for a short time and, when he returned, other administrators said Thomasson wanted to speak with him. Upon arriving at Thomasson’s office, the principal told the SRO he had the student in a conference room and that the student had allegedly threatened to bring a gun to school. Thomasson provided the SRO with four statements he had already obtained, one from the accused student and three from witnesses. The SRO then went into the conference room and spoke with the student who couldn’t or wouldn’t recall exactly what he said. Apparently, this student had been involved with a threat the year before at Lugoff-Elgin Middle School and was being teased about that on his bus that morning and went along with the teasing so the other students would leave him alone. The boy also claimed not to have any weapons at his home.

In their report, the SRO said they also spoke to Thomasson, telling the principal the biggest problem he had with the case was that he had not been notified immediately when the threat became known, thereby possibly missing some important information.

The SRO contacted his supervisor and the KCSO’s chief deputy.

Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said the school suspended the student, but also removed the student from campus before any further follow up by deputies.

“But we did follow up on it. We went to the parent’s house and they were very cooperative, giving us permission to search the child’s room,” Matthews said. “We found only a pellet gun and determined there was not a credible threat. This was a case where -- believe me, as seriously as we take these things -- if we had enough to make an arrest, we would have made one.”

Matthews clarified his statement to mean that if that had been the case, deputies would have petitioned the boy to family court.

“We’re going to go hard against these things, as far as we legally can, because this has got to stop,” Matthews said.

Matthews’ juvenile investigator, Renee Culp, said that, in extreme cases, there are times when law enforcement can detain a juvenile and transport them directly to the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

“Parents have to sign a juvenile release form. They are responsible for bringing them to court when their child has been petitioned to family court,” Culp said.

The next morning, Friday, Feb. 16, according to an Elgin Police Department (EPD) report, a juvenile at LSMS made a verbal threat against another student where they allegedly said “One day, I will bring a shotgun.” According to the report, the student had an encounter with a classmate the previous afternoon. Allegedly, the accused student used a racial slur and, the next morning, the offended student asked the accused student why they did so. When the administrator and Elgin officer spoke to the accused student, they reportedly admitted to making the racial slur the day before and claimed they said “gonna get a gun” to the other student. The accused student then changed their story slightly, claiming they said, “Maybe I’ll bring a gun.”

LSMS actually sits outside the town limit of Elgin. The Elgin officer responded to the situation at the request of a KCSO SRO who was on duty directing traffic on Smyrna Road due to Feb. 16 being a half-day of school.

According to the Elgin officer’s report, their involvement ended when administrators advised them the accused student was a special needs child, but would be suspended pending what is known as a “manifestation hearing” to determine if an administrative, expulsion or alternative schooling hearing would take place.

Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown said the case was turned back over to the sheriff’s office for any further enforcement decisions.

Brown also said, “Law enforcement ultimately makes the decision on petitioning a juvenile.”

Matthews and Camden Police Chief Joy Floyd agreed.

Culp said the KCSO has received the EPD’s report and is still investigating that situation.

Three days later, around 8:45 a.m., Monday, Feb. 19, an 11-year-old 6th Grade girl allegedly used the Snapchat app to send a message to a small circle of students at Camden High School (CHS) making a specific threat against the school.

In that case, a female high school student who received the message went to administrators, who engaged the school’s resource officer. That officer, in turn, contacted their superiors at the Camden Police Department (CPD), which led to about seven or eight officers responding to and staying at the school, a nearly day-long investigation and, the discovery of the 6th grade girl’s identity.

CPD investigators interviewed the girl with her parents present and, ultimately, petitioned her to family court on the disturbing school charge.

“Our response had to be that of a credible threat,” Floyd said. “It wasn’t determined that it wasn’t a credible threat until that afternoon. By then, there had been an impact on resources, all the people who took their kids out of school, the level of fear generated by the threat. We petitioned her with the impact of her action, which was disturbing schools.”

Around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, citizens reported that a number of deputies had responded to Lugoff-Elgin High School. According to a KCSO report, the L-EHS SRO received a call from an administrator at the Applied Technology Education Campus (ATEC) that a 17-year-old male senior had posted a video to social media from inside a restroom at L-EHS with the caption “He gotta gun” with an upside smiley face and ‘RIP.” The SRO and KCSO seargeant met the assistant principal and pulled the student out of the L-EHS JROTC classroom. A search of the student, his belongings and car only turned up a small pocket folding knife. The SRO listed the report as for “information only,” meaning no law enforcement action was taken.

Culp said in cases like this one, deputies may have a question about “where it will fall” as far as charges go.

“If there’s nothing specific, it will be assigned to an investigator,” she said. “It comes down to how they (students) word things. Did they actually threaten to shoot someone? Then, we do have a disturbing schools charge. Every situation is unique. It just depends on the specific circumstances. If the action meets the statute of a crime, it will go to the juvenile solicitor. If I have questions or am on the fence, I’ll call her and ask her advice about the circumstances.”

One thing Matthews said must happen is for schools to allow officers and deputies, including SROs, to do their jobs.

“We are working with the school district to improve the lines of communication between principals and SROs so that the sheriff’s office can make a determination if criminal charges are appropriate,” Matthews said, referring to the first L-EHS case involving the 14-year-old on Feb. 15.

Kershaw County School District Director of Communications Mary Anne Byrd said the district’s protocol is to let the school’s SRO know as quickly as possible.

“In practical terms, it may take a school administrator a small amount of time to gather baseline information to share with the SRO,” Byrd said. “If there are any concerns, the school administrator and the SRO talk about the issue to resolve it.”

In addition, Byrd said the district organized a meeting earlier this week with local law enforcement official to plan an extended drill involving all parties.

“Also, Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan is meeting with law enforcement officials to discuss safety items of importance for Kershaw County,” she said.

The C-I also asked Byrd about whether or not new school construction is incorporating safety features.

“Safety is always our number one priority,” Byrd replied,” including the design and building of our schools. Law enforcement officials were part of the stakeholder groups that helped with the access and placement of schools on their properties.”

She said each new school will have a security entrance with a holding area where visitors have to be identified before they can even be “buzzed in” to an office or reception area.

“Before leaving the office area to enter into the main school building, persons would again have to be ‘buzzed in’ to gain access to the hallways. We have been installing this type of front entrance access at all of our schools, and by the time the new schools are opened, we will be finished with that process,” Byrd said.

She said the new schools will also have security cameras throughout the buildings and campus, as well as controlled access at all main outside doors.

“The schools being renovated will receive upgraded digital camera systems that will provide remote access to law enforcement officials,” Byrd said.

 

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