Rumors and warnings mark new focus on school violence
As the nation copes with effects of its latest mass school shooting, parents, children, educators and police officials are adjusting to heightened fears and new expectations, amid an unprecedented wave of local arrests resulting from alleged threats, but no actual acts of violence.
Lafourche Parish deputies were awaiting word that they could pick up two Thibodaux High students accused of threatening gun violence. Each was at a mental health facility receiving evaluation.
Warrants were signed last week for Keith Usea and Mason Dupre, both 17-years-old, on charges of terrorizing. Bonds for each were set at $1 million. Neither had possession of a weapon at any time. Acquaintances of the families of both teens said they did not see either as a threat to anyone.
At the start of the week eleven youngsters were in custody overall for a variety of incidents involving threats to schools or students in Terrebonne and Lafourche. Police and educators are urging parents and students to say something to someone if they hear or see anything suspicious. At the same time, they are urging parents to talk with youngsters and explain in no uncertain term that violence is not a thing to joke about, and that criminal charges will result regardless of a student’s intent.
“I am imploring parents to talk with their children,” said Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre. “Please make them understand the serious nature of threatening students, making comments or social media posts about threats or weapons, or even joking about such things,” Webre said. “The students charged this week are facing serious charges with serious consequences. We are already beginning internal review of how we can better address this issue with students, but the education has to start in the home.”
Terrebonne Sheriff Jerry Larpenter said parents and children must be aware of how serious even idle words can be.
“Parents must make sure their kids stay off of social media talking about these incidents,” said Terrebonne Sheriff Jerry Larpenter. “One talks about an incident and by the time that one shares and another one shares we end up with a whole different message and a dog that is chasing its tail. Since that incident in Florida there have been 20 arrests throughout Louisiana for school threats. We have kids saying things and thinking it’s a joke, that it’s not serious and they make comments. Well we are living in a real world where we have got to take it seriously when someone makes comments. Do not joke about firearms. There is no joking about hurting. They may say they don’t really want to hurt people, but law enforcement doesn’t know that, students don’t know that and staff doesn’t know that.”
Sensitivity in communities throughout the U.S. is at an all-time high following the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The incident remains in the public eye as classmates, friends and relatives of the dead and wounded make plaintive pleas for gun control and steps to make schools safer overall. Talk of proposed bans on semi-automatic rifles and suggestions that teachers or parent volunteers pack firearms have further stirred the pot of a gumbo that shape-changes from school safety discussion to partisan political and culture debates and then back again.
Locally, anxiety, rumor and fear have strained relations between school officials and some parents over notification procedures when a threat was detected at a school.
Word of Keith Usea’s arrest sparked an angry response from some parents, who say they should have been notified immediately when the student’s alleged threats were acted upon by the school.
School officials said they delayed notifications because the threat had already been eliminated. They also said they were told by a detective not to share information right away, for fear of jeopardizing the investigation. Public notification should wait, school officials said they were told, until a joint statement by the school district and law enforcement could be made.
Lt. Matherne said that while there was a request for discretion, out of concerns for damage to the investigation, there was no gag order, nor could there be.
“In speaking to people in general, we did request they hold off due to concerns of possibly hurting the investigation,” Matherne said. “But no one to my knowledge told them they absolutely could not put anything out. We simply made a request.”
Information about Usea’s alleged threats were handled by school officials and law enforcement notified, on Monday Feb. 19, with the investigation not beginning until after 3 p.m. that day.
If direct notification was to be made that day, Floyd Benoit of the Lafourche schools said, a note could not be sent home with students because it was already too late.
A joint news release was prepared by the school system and the Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday Feb. 21, while the second person was already being questioned. The pending charges against the second teen were announced Wednesday, once a warrant was obtained.
The situation illuminates the sometimes conflicting roles of law enforcement and the schools regarding notifications and public statements, and the expectations that parents may have.
Al Carter, a Thibodaux parent and former state senatorial candidate, was incensed that Thibodaux High notified him that his daughter was absent from school Wednesday but did not inform him that she was one of the students on a “hit list” allegedly compiled by Usea.
Carter wants to see a state law which would “mandate schools to notify parents and the community of any threats of violence and any violence that occurs at or near school property immediately and at the latest 24 hours after knowledge of the act was brought to their attention and verified, Carter said in a Facebook post verified with him by The Times. “That it should be done through text messaging systems, EMAIL, phone calls and onsite notification. That the only exception would be if it would hinder an active investigation by law enforcement and in that case a generic notice without specifics would be sent out with a warning of a potential act. And that if a specific student or students were the target of a potential violent threat that their parents or guardians would be notified immediately regardless of the status of the investigation.”
Parents of targeted students, he said, should be notified prior to the return of a student that made the threat to school, although he also maintains that offending students should not be allowed to do so, but rather be placed in an alternative school setting.
Lafourche Parish School District spokesman Floyd Benoit said that under no circumstances would a student involved in such a case be returned to school. As of the point the student was removed he or she would be placed on suspension. Even if criminally charged and then released on a bond, he said, a return to school under these circumstances would not occur.
Incidents resulting in arrests have occurred in both Terrebonne and Lafourche, in addition to the cases of Usea and Dupre.
· Thibodaux Police Chief Bryan Zeringue said Friday that a St. Joseph Elementary student was charged with terrorizing. Students, Zeringue said, overheard the child “make a comment about being a school shooter” and saw him make a hand gesture as though he was holding a gun.
· Friday a Larose-Cut Off Middle School 12-year-old was arrested after being released from a psychiatric evaluation, which was ordered after he made a statement about bringing a weapon to school. Charged with terrorizing, he had neither a weapon nor access to one, the Lafourche Sheriff’s Office said.
· Thursday a 15-year-old Raceland Middle student confirmed to a school resource officer that planned to retrieve a firearm from his home and kill a female student. He was charged with simple assault.
· Another Raceland Middle student was arrested after making threatening remarks to the girl who was the alleged target on a school bus as they rode home.
· A 10-year-old Bayou Blue Elementary student was questioned after threatening a female student with bodily harm. The boy was charged with simple assault and released to the custody of his parents.
· A 13-year old girl who attended Evergreen Elementary was arrested and charged with terrorizing after sending a group message out on a social media platform stating she was going to bring a gun to school and shoot some people.
· A 15-year-old South Lafourche High student was arrested for reportedly planning to bring a gun to school and kill a teacher.
Authorities said their attempts to investigate incidents were hampered by outflows of rumor and falsehoods on social media, including erroneous information that a weapon was recovered in one case and in others that schools were locked down or students being dismissed.
While they understand concerns of parents, educators and law enforcement officials said rumors do the opposite of keeping students safe.
“People believe they are helping by telling others what they have heard,” said Sheriff Webre. “In reality, spreading unverified information from unofficial sources does not help anyone and can easily create unnecessary panic. If you hear any rumor about a threat, contact the school or our office. We will properly investigate and, if necessary, pass on any credible threats or information to the public.”
As local schools began settling back to normal this week, information was slowly emerging about youngsters facing charges for threats. In the case of South Lafourche High School the student who was charged allegedly made threatening statements prior to the Florida case that raised so much concern and awareness.
Lafourche law enforcement officials said they were not aware of the situation unti lit was reported to them by school authorities, after students made educators aware.
The overwhelming question now for teachers and educators as well as law enforcement is what can be done to create a greater margin of safety for children, teachers and anyone else on campus.
Katie Portier, a Houma mother who is a bank marketing professional, took it upon herself to create a Facebook page for people concerned about safety and to encourage discussion.
“My biggest concern was are the right people talking about this,” Portier said. “I think the school boards are taking wonderful steps. They have approved funds to make schools safer and doing risk assessments. But I want us to have conversation with teachers, administrators, students, as a community, as parents, as business supporters to figure out how we can help teachers get the resources they need to be trained. They need to recognize what they see in the first place. There is a lot of day-to-day aggression in some kid. They need tools to de-escalate and to isolate.”
The response to the Facebook page Terrebonne Safe Schools Coalition overwhelmed Portier. As of Monday it had 735 likes.
Last week at the Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum seven interested people showed up for an initial conversation, which Portier said is an encouraging start.
Anyone interested in assisting in dialogue, Portier said, can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the group is currently concerned with Terrebonne schools, Portier said they will be happy to work with parents from other school systems as well.