Russell County sheriff vows consequences as two students ages 12, 13 charged for threats

Tim Chitwood/tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com

As two Russell County Middle School students face charges for allegedly threatening to shoot up the school, the sheriff warns that others will face similar consequences for such threats.

“We’re going to take those very seriously,” Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said at a Tuesday news conference he called to emphasize the warning. “We’re going to investigate those as seriously as we can, and if we develop a suspect, we’re going to charge them in every case.”

Because of well-publicized school shootings elsewhere, local authorities cannot afford to take those threats lightly, he said.

“We know the cases that have occurred around this country, where people have shot up our kids and our schools,” Taylor said, adding that those tempted to make threats should be more responsible. “It’s disrespectful in my opinion for these students to do that. It’s disrespectful to victims of the past shootings. It’s disrespectful for them to think that it’s a joke.”

His investigators had to spend hours reviewing school security camera footage and questioning witnesses to identify two suspects, a boy and a girl ages 12 to 13, accused of writing threats in ink on the walls of the school in Seale.

The first incident was reported on Sept. 15, and a second on Sept. 19, he said. Each message was a threat to shoot up the school the next day. The first threats were found in girls’ restrooms, the second ones were in a boys’ restroom and a hallway, he said. They were written either with an ink pen or marker, he said.

Students reported the threats to a school resource officer, who called them in to the sheriff’s office, Taylor said.

Each suspect was detained and initially held overnight in a youth detention center in Opelika, facing a charge of making terroristic threats, a felony that for adults carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, investigators said.

‘This isn’t a game’

Holding students in a youth detention center or YDC for school threats, before releasing them to their parents’ custody, likely will “become the norm” in such cases, Taylor said: “I think you’re going to see the judge send them to YDC for a couple of days, even if it’s kids who’ve never done anything wrong in the past.”

Having been detained and released, the two students now await their hearing in juvenile court.

Alabama law defines a terroristic threat as vowing to commit violence or damage property by “intentionally or recklessly” terrorizing someone else, disrupting school, causing the evacuation of public buildings or transportation, or menacing someone to impede a court proceeding.

Taylor said he believes the law is “self-explanatory,” and anyone, including students, should understand such conduct is reckless and illegal.

He was unsure what penalty the two juveniles would face, when they go to juvenile court, but said he had spoken with the judge, Zachary Collins, who agreed it was a serious offense.

The news conference Tuesday was intended to ensure others recognize that as well, the sheriff said.

“Today is about letting the students in our school system understand that we don’t live in a world anymore where you can make those allegations and threats, and it just be brushed under the rug, or taken that you’re trying to get school disrupted, or you’re trying to get a test not to occur.... I think the students need to understand that this is not something to play with. This isn’t a game, and it’s not funny.”