Students arrested, expelled for making violent Twitter threats

Two students at West Haven High School have been expelled over posts made on Twitter. Police said none of threats made were deemed credible. Parents were alerted of the situation through the school's weekly flyer.
Two students at West Haven High School have been expelled over posts made on Twitter. Police said none of threats made were deemed credible. Parents were alerted of the situation through the school's weekly flyer.NBC Connecticut / Today

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By Helen A.S. Popkin and Helen A.S. Popkin

A high school junior posted multiple tweets on Twitter about plans to place a bomb in a locker, including a specific place and time. In an unconnected Twitter incident, a sophomore at the same school wrote about shooting himself and other students. Both claimed the tweets were meant as jokes, not threats, the New Haven Register reports. But West Haven High School in Connecticut — where both were students — and the local police department, are not laughing.

Now expelled and arrested, both students face felony charges. The cases serve as yet another example of what happens when schools and social media clash. "The two happened so close together that we thought someone needs to say to these kids that if you post something, you’re going to be held responsible," Sgt. Dave Tammaro told the Register.

Like so many other schools these days, West Haven High plans to use these incidents to once again educate parents on why it's a good idea to monitor what their kids are doing on the Internet. Neither the West Haven school district or police department responded to our requests for comment.

But in all the discussion of the cases, free speech doesn't seem to be part of the conversation.  

In an April story about three girls in Indiana suspended for joking on Facebook about classmates they'd like to kill, Wendy Kaminer wrote in The Atlantic:  "There's no question that those of us not in actual or virtual custody of school authorities have the right to make jokes about killing each other. Student rights, however, are increasingly limited; anxiety about social media and hysteria about bullying or drug use have only been exacerbated by the post 9/11 authoritarianism that permeates our culture and our courts."

Most often, the onus on the school is not to support free speech, but on the parents and kids to watch what the kids are posting. In West Haven, parents were informed in a school newsletter about the threat from the students, whose names are withheld because they are minors, Principal Pamela Gardner told the Register, and the school continues to work with the police on social media matters.

"I think kids don’t really think when they post on Twitter, and it’s really important that kids understand that what they write on any social media they’re held accountable for, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek because you can’t get the meaning across — you don’t know if it’s sarcasm or how it was intended," Gardner told the Register. "And so I think that what is really important is that kids and parents are really aware of how social media is impacting our students’ lives."

When it comes to questionable student behavior and social media, arrests are rare. Expulsions however, not so much. Earlier this month, a student came under police investigation after he was suspended from Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota for allegedly serving another student a cupcake laced with semen, the Pioneeer Press reported earlier this week.

It wasn't the "inappropriate prank he pulled on another student" that got the attention of the police, St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Paulos told the Pioneer Press. It was the kid's tweet threatening to burn down his school principal's house. The police are now investigating the threat, reported on Friday, but the student hasn't been arrested.

Guns, bombs, arson. Sure puts the case of that kid, Austin Carroll, who dropped the f-bomb on Twitter, into context. Earlier this year, Carroll, a 17-year-old senior at Garrett High School in Garrett, Indiana, was expelled months before graduation for doing just that.

"One of my tweets was, f****** is one of those f****** words you can f****** put anywhere in a f****** sentence and it still f****** makes sense," Carroll told The Indiana NewsCenter.

Garrett High School seemed to skirt the whole free speech argument by claiming it had proof the "inappropriate" content came from a school computer, not Carroll's private property.

While not involved in the case at the time, ACLU attorney Aden Fine told me that "the courts are just starting to grapple with this issue, and the (U.S.) Supreme Court hasn't yet made clear what can and can't be punished in school."

Generally, cases involving punishment of student behavior outside of school present a very slippery slope. "What kids say while they're not at school is not the school's business, that's for parents to decide," Fine said. "That's the way it's been for hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of years."

When that speech involves threats of violence however, fears about losing free speech are increasingly left in the dust.

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about Internet privacy, then asks you to join her Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+. Because that's how she rolls.