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How are threats against schools investigated? Law enforcement, administrators explain

by ANDREW CHRISTMAN - achristman@h-ponline.com

Threats to the Huntington County Community School Corporation are rare, but when they occur it takes a combined effort to determine whether the threat is valid, according to school administrators and local law enforcement.

HCCSC has software that monitors student social media activity, particularly on distributed laptops, according to Superintendent Randy Harris. The program flags suspicious posts, which are then used in a criminal investigation by local law enforcement.

Criminal charges can be filed depending on the severity of the threat, though Harris said charges are filed through the county prosecutor while the school will often seek expulsion of the student.

While threats may be rare, there is a noted presence of juvenile cases being present around the county.

Harris stated the majority of juvenile cases involving the school corporation take place at the high school level. If a student is being disruptive, he said, it is up to the discretion of Jami Craft and Rodney Richison, the deans of student at the school, whether law enforcement gets involved. 

“If it’s something at school, the deans will make that determination. Ninety-nine percent of (juvenile cases)probably never get to law enforcement or probation; they’re simply handled as a school matter,” Harris said. “If they know that kid has been in other outside-of-school altercations and they find something happens in school, they’re quicker to work across agencies.”

With a recent shift to focusing on school safety, Huntington Sheriff Terry Stoffel said his office often works hand-in-hand with administrators at all levels.

“The schools always call us immediately and get us on board. It’s not taboo for the Sheriff’s Department or the City Police Department to investigate a juvenile,” he said. “The age doesn’t matter to us. If we think there is a crime or a crime against somebody, we’re going to dig into it and get to the bottom of it.”

Stoffel explained his department gets frequent calls from the HCCSC in regards to a potential juvenile crime, though much of the time it is nothing more than an accusation. Harris said he sees an average of one or two serious cases requiring law enforcement each year.

While a juvenile investigation is taken as seriously as an adult case, the procedures are more strict. Stoffel noted a parent or guardian has to be present when law enforcement officials are speaking with a juvenile, a situation that can be difficult when the juvenile is suspected of comitting a crime against a parent or another adult.

“We had one instance where the parent was the complaintant and they were the victim of a crime he alleged his son did to him. In order for us to question that juvenile, the parent couldn’t give consent any more because he’s the victim, so the court has to appoint an attorney for that juvenile for us to talk to him,” Stoffel said. “It can be a very complicated process.”

Prosecutor Amy Richison said at the school level, the school’s resource officer is often assigned to look into juvenile cases that have been reported. If additional resources are needed, Richison said the Sheriff’s Department and City Police Department are contacted.

In the case of a threat to a school, Richison said intimidation charges typically sought, though additional charges may be added depending on the type of threat issued.

“There are a lot of different factors, but the content of what the threat would be would help direct it. But if we find out somebody was just joking or they wanted to have a day off school, those don’t necessarily stop our ability to hold somebody accountable through a criminal investigation,” Richison said. “First and foremost, this is not something you joke about.”

Richison added that as a prosecutor, she has seen a wide range of juvenile cases, from misdemeanors to felonies as well as runaways and truancies.

“Every kind of crime we see in the adult courts, we potentially see in the juvenile courts,” she said.

Juvenile cases are not as prevalent as adult cases in Huntington County; throughout the year of 2017, according to information provided by Huntington Circuit Court Judge Jamie Groves, there were a total of 133 juvenile cases. There were a total of 131 such cases in 2016. Groves said at the current rate, he expects to see around 140 for 2018.

Juvenile cases are split into formal and informal probation rules depending on the severity of the charges, Groves said. With a formal charge, Groves said the prosecutor drafts a petition for delinquency before an initial hearing. At an informal meeting, the rules will be signed by the judge, and the juvenile will agree to meet certain criteria the prosecutor feels need to be met, such as meeting with a probation officer, avoiding further delinquent acts, and going to school and avoiding disciplinary issues while there.

“At the end of the day, it basically means that if you’re doing what most kids are doing and not getting in trouble, you’re going to be fine and you’ll be off informal probation after about six months,” he said. “Most of the time, we see them get off within three to six months if they’re doing really well.”

After completing an informal probation period, juveniles will no longer have to meet with the two county juvenile probation officers, who were recently given an office at Huntington North High School.

Prior to being named judge, Groves said he spent the past 20 years acting as a juvenile prosecutor. During that time, he noted he has not seen any serious rise in juvenile cases.

Richison noted that Groves’ background as a juvenile prosecutor has allowed the court system to attempt to redirect juveniles by holding them accountable for their actions and offering resources to change problematic behavior before a juvenile would enter the court system as an adult. Resources offered to juvenile offenders include the Youth Services Bureau; counseling from Bowen Center; detention facilities such as Paddock View, which is non-secure, therapeutic residential location; and Family Service Society in Marion for juvenile sex offenses.

“Detention in a facility is never going to happen through an informal situation, as that will require some kind of court order to have the juvenile placed in those facilities,” Richison said. 

In an effort to combat juvenile cases, Harris said students are encouraged to report suspicious activity or social media postings made by fellow students. All entities involved in juvenile cases agreed the easiest way to keep a juvenile out of the system is to maintain a healthy home life as well as joining after-school activities.

“Just be involved in their lives,” Groves said. “We’ve certainly had some bad kids, some kids whose parents are trying everything they can. I used to always say to people that it was rare as a probation officer that I would go into a home and see a perfect home environment but the kid was just bad. You could almost always see what was going wrong in the home. These kids are coming out and getting in trouble for a reason, and that’s frustrating.”