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October 10, 2017

LHS crowd presses officials for death threat answers

I find that very disheartening. The reality is my son had to go back and sit in classes the next day.
— Targeted student’s father
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
Parents and teenagers Monday night blasted official response to online death threats involving Liberty High School students.

“I have never been more disappointed in this community or this high school or our law makers than I am right now,” Lee Herb said. “What I do not appreciate is . . . you saying there is not a threat to our students.”

Before an audience of about 150 and TV cameras in the LHS auditorium, administrators and law enforcement officials explained last week’s decision not to place criminal charges against the six students who took part in the online chats.

“This scares the hell out of me that my child is walking the halls, sitting in class with these students,” said Jennifer Davis, one of 15 citizens who spoke at the hastily-organized forum.

A nurse, Ms. Davis added: “I know who some of these children are; they need mental health” treatment.

Many of the comments sparked prolonged applause.

School officials admitted they could have communicated more effectively with parents last week.

Administrators and the sheriff’s office on Monday, Oct. 2, began investigating the threats, posted the previous week in a private chat on Discord, an application for online gamers.

Principal Sam Cox notified parents of the investigation in a mass email at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, after the targeted student’s father posted screen shots of the chat on Facebook.

Assistant Superintendent Frank Finn said school officials “can learn from” the incident and perhaps notify the community sooner.

“This is a community effort, all of us making sure our schools are safe. Parents often know things before we do,” Mr. Finn said.

Audience members pressed for information about whether administrators would suspend or expel the students who made comments about killing a peer, with references to “lynching” and a “school shooter list.” One comment said the targeted student “has one month to live.”

The chat took place under the heading “operation-will-to-kill.”

Mr. Finn repeatedly said privacy law prohibits the release of information about the students involved.

“I’m nervous. I’m shaken,” Mr. Cox admitted early in the 90-minute meeting.

The principal said he couldn’t guarantee “100-percent safety” of all students but noted that he brings his own children to the Bealeton campus

“A major stressing point in this has been this is a private app,” parent Bernice Felder said. “Is the message (to students) . . . . use a private app so you don’t get prosecuted?”

Mr. Cox responded: “The message is it’s not OK to bully anyone at any time.”

To qualify as a crime, a death threat must be “communicated to that person directly,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Charles Peters explained.

“This was an extensive legal analysis,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Abigail Owens added. “There was no violation of the law there.”

Sheriff Bob Mosier suggested: “The laws have not caught up with the technology” and encouraged citizens to press state legislators for change.

Time stamps on the screen shots indicate the chatter about death threats took place after school hours, Ms. Owens said.

About 240 students stayed home from school Thursday and about 30 stayed missed classes Friday, according to Mr. Cox.

“We are not going to put a student in a school community that we think is a risk to other students,” Mr. Finn said.

“I think the police and administration acted as they should, because they are dealing with minors,” parent Carrie Kolyer said after the meeting. “I have every confidence they are doing what they can and will continue to do so.”

Sheriff Mosier said: “We have closed the investigation, with a caveat. Unless there is other information that would come forward . . . . Without additional information, there is no where else to go.”

Later Monday night, nine parents and students addressed the school board during its monthly meeting at Fauquier High.

“It’s clear there was a case here,” the targeted student’s father told the board.

School officials criticized him for posting the screen shots on Facebook, the father said.

“I find that very disheartening,” he continued. “The reality is my son had to go back and sit in classes the next day . . . . The other kids were suspended after the fact.

“The guys in the brown uniforms (sheriff’s deputies) did good. Everybody else left us hanging. This is not just my case . . . . That’s what my son wants to come of this — real change . . . . At some point in time, somebody needs to make this better.”

Note — The targeted student’s father gave his full name before speaking to the school board. FauquierNow has chosen not to publish his name because it would identify the son, a minor.

Editor Lawrence Emerson contributed to this report.
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Kay G. · October 12, 2017 at 10:22 am
That becomes a real Catch 22 then, doesn't it... One would perceive having others talking behind your back about killing you as being harassment at the very least. How does one ever know if they are going to act on it or not? VERY unsettling, and chatter which could easily result in having emotional repercussions for the victim.
sshrader · October 12, 2017 at 10:09 am
Kay-
I agree with a lot of your thoughts, especially about discussing the impact of social media. But, as far as the idea of any legislation changes, this all falls under the free speech umbrella, no matter the technology used. Many legal battles have been fought when restrictions have been attempted to be placed on free speech. These battles have helped define the current understanding of what is considered a threat and is not, what is considered harassment and what is not. It is unconstitutional to consider any legal ramifications, no matter how well intended, if neither a threat nor harassment can be proven.
Kay G. · October 12, 2017 at 9:40 am
I did not articulate adequately. Absolutely education first and foremost, but that doesn't always work depending upon other factors in a young person's life. Additionally, the negative aspects of our now pervasive social media culture has complicated things even further. And, the fact that children today are being asked to jump through many more hoops than I was growing up, and are being pummeled by information and technology overload from so many different directions, causes me to think that we need to be more vigilant than ever in helping them. Mental health care and intervention is critical. Spotting those that need it and having services available (for all, not just those who can pay) is critical.

As for legislation catching up with technology -- having legal consequences to the actions these students were involved in does not have to mean locking them up, but could instead result in mandatory counseling/education (and not just a one-off). Are these kids high-fiving each other that they got off free from this? Not every parent will see this as a wake-up call, but will instead pass it off as youthful hi-jinks, or perhaps not even care. These are NOT the kind of hi-jinks that should be taken lightly by anyone.

Sorry... an afterthought. I no longer have school-age children, so I do not know what is being done in terms of school curriculum, starting in elementary school and going through high school, to address the impact of technology and social media in our children's lives as they mature. This is a critical life-skills and wellness topic today.
sshrader · October 12, 2017 at 8:38 am
There is no need for legislation to change. The letter written by Mr Fisher, the Fauquier Co. Commonwealth's Attorney, makes it clear that the conversation may be disturbing but is not considered a threat legally. New legislation would not change that. The Commonwealth's Senior Attorney, Ms. Owens, also wrote an extensive letter that detailed the Virginia Code's that may have pertained but of which they found no legal violation. One of those codes pertains to computer harassment. To read the information in full go to: https://commonwealthsattorney.com/liberty-high-school-internet-conversation-additional-facts-disclosed/

As a society, we would be better off having more education on the better ways to interact with each other, new laws will not change the issues that the conversation brings to light. We expect kids to deal with problems civilly but when they have issues we too often look to punish instead of teach. A recent survey from our schools asked what skills our kids need, two of the most important and overlooked skills that our schools can encourage (with the correct teaching approaches) are communication and critical thinking. Better communication and critical thinking skills would give the kids tools to better approach issues with each other and prevent some of these immature conversations.

Kay G. · October 11, 2017 at 4:53 pm
I find it astounding that there is only one mention of mental health in this article. Where IS the mental health discussion here? The kids who participated in this chat need serious intervention and counseling. There should be counseling for the other students about these kinds of behaviors, and for the victim -- and that what the targeted student is, regardless of whether or not he was being addressed directly or not by these bullies. And, yes... it's time for legislation to catch up with technology... so how about it, Virginia State General Assembly??
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