What do Social Media, the CIA, Students and Terroristic Threats have in Common?
None of this is a joke.
In April of this year, while reviewing a standard search that we keep up-and-running on our social media monitoring application, I came across an image that alarmed me; the image depicted a young man holding a gun in a school classroom. Posted by a student other than the one in the image, the message read “Holy $%#* He brought a gun to school!” A fellow student questioned the authenticity of the image in a Twitter message back to the poster – “Is this even our school?” and the poster replied that it was indeed authentic: “Yes, in my 2nd block.“
While I too questioned the authenticity, I was concerned; whether this was a “real” image or not, it wasn’t funny. While we are certainly not alone, at Firestorm we have seen first-hand the results of students who bring guns to school. Students, families, teachers and the community have suffered and continue to suffer the consequences. Tuesday of this week in Oregon is a heartbreaking reminder of the very real threat of violence that exists.
Although the social account posting the image was anonymous, we were able to identify the school and reached out to the principal whose response was exemplary. While the image was not authentic to his school, the principal’s greatest disappointment was in that his school drills on “If You See Something, Say Something” and no one said a word.
Even today as the CIA joined Twitter we’re seeing how some people are using the opportunity to get their own kind of attention. Someone tweeted at the CIA “im a terrorist”
Real World Repercussions
Last week, two former high school students publicly made terrorist threats against Massapequa High School via Facebook. Between Monday night and Tuesday morning, Corinne Terris, 19, and Richard Delepesce, 17, posted and commented about taking a gun to their alma mater. In a police report, Terris claimed she only replied to Delepesce’s post as a joke and she “had no intention of going on school grounds.” The two surrendered to Nassau County police Wednesday and were arrested. According to detectives, Massapequa High School dean was contacted about the post by a concerned parent.
Fortunately, no students were put in harm’s way during the incident. Unfortunately, however, this was not the first time threats were made towards a school as a “joke”. A student enrolled at the Edmond Santa Fe High School made threats on Twitter from April 30 to May 2. The student tweeted, “I’m gonna shoot up the school if I fail the EOI,” and “I wanna tell my kids that I survived a school shooting and seem like a bad***. So some white kid better shoot up the school or I will.” The student told police that he was not serious about the threats and that he was just trying to be funny and increase his social media following. The student was suspended for the rest of the year and faces custody charges that will be taken to the Juvenile DA’s office.
Two students from New Haven High School in Connecticut tweeted unrelated threats to their high school. A junior posted multiple times about placing a bomb in the school while a sophomore at the same school tweeted about shooting himself and other students. Both claim the Twitter posts were jokes, not threats. However, they were not taken as jokes by the local police department. Both students were expelled, arrested and face felony charges.
In Connecticutt, Bristol police arrested a 13-year-old student on June 5 in connection with a bomb threat and charged the student with a felony. School officials say the student, whose name has not been released, is charged in connection with a threat at the Chippens Hill Middle School.
The cases of teens threatening schools or other entities via social media and other outlets are growing as the medium grows. You may recall an incident in April of this year where a social media user with the Twitter handle “@QueenDemetriax_” tweeted to the American Airlines (@americanair) account: “hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.”
American Airlines quickly responded with: “Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.” And they were. The young woman was arrested and later released after questioning by Dutch authorities.
In 2013, Caleb Jamaal Clemmons, a 20-year-old college student was jailed for six months (while awaiting trial) after posting a vague but provocative threat on his Tumblr blog. He eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of making terroristic threats and was sentenced by a judge to five years of probation. During that time he is banned from four counties, including the one in which his school is located, and he is not allowed to use social media. He must complete a mental health evaluation within 30 days of release. He must also complete a drug and alcohol evaluation and avoid contact with alcohol and illegal drugs during his probation.
He was additionally sentenced to six months in jail (credit was given for time-served), and 150 to 180 days at a probation detention center, which was suspended.
Students and others must understand that any threat will be considered a terroristic threat within the legal definition:
What Does “Making a Terrorist Threat” Mean?
The crime of “making a terrorist threat” is a creation of the last decade, enacted at both the state and federal levels, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It is a very general law that can be used to prosecute terrorists, but has been used far more often to prosecute other violations of criminal law such as domestic violence, hate crimes, bomb threats, and school violence. Indeed, in many states, the term “terrorist” has been amended to mean simply “criminal.”
Although the exact definition varies from state to state, generally one makes a terrorist threat if one threatens to commit a violent crime for the purpose of terrorizing another or of causing public panic. Some states laws are very narrow, meaning the threat must be very specific and direct, while other states adapt a looser approach, allowing even negligently made threats to be prosecutable.
What Are the Elements of a Terrorist Threat?
As detailed by LegalMatch, the most commonly used definition of a terrorist or criminal threat has five elements:
- Willful Threat. Someone willfully threatens to commit a crime that will result in death or great bodily harm. This means that the threat obviously has to be of a highly dangerous nature. Threatening to slash someone’s tires, for instance, would probably not be sufficient. However, the threat can be made in writing, verbally or electronically transmitted.
- Specific Intent. The threat was made with the specific intent that it be taken as a threat. Although this certainly seems like a redundant sentence, it is meant to convey that the threat is a crime even if there is no actual intent to carry it out. The only intent you need is the intent to make the threat itself. So if you threaten to blow up a school, you will still be guilty of this crime even if you are completely unarmed and have no means of accomplishing this at all.
- Unequivocal, Unconditional, and Specific. The threat is unequivocal, unconditional, and specific as to convey a gravity of purpose and immediate prospect of execution. This extremely complicated sounding sentence is very important to the law, so let’s break it down. Remember you must satisfy ALL of these requirements.
- Unequivocal: This means that the threat must be a direct statement of what you WILL do, as opposed to CAN do (i.e. “I could be the next man to blow up the federal building” does NOT count).
- Unconditional: This word is very bizarrely used here, because the courts have directly held that conditional threats (“If you touch me again I’ll kill you”) DO qualify. It is a gray area, but presumably, the fewer conditions used, the more likely the court will rule that it is a threat.
- Specific: The threat cannot be vague (e.g. “If you don’t give me a million dollars, something bad will happen”).
- Caused Fear. The threat actually caused fear in the victim. People must actually believe your threat for you to be arrested for it.
- The Fear Was Reasonable. If you said that you are going to blow up the White House with your spaceship, it is unlikely that any reasonable person could take this seriously.
Does Every State Have a Terrorist Threat Law?
Yes, every state has some version of the law. Missouri, for instance, only considers a terrorist threat one which frightens more than ten people. However, California insists that the fear caused be “sustained” (held for more than a brief instant).
Since the laws differ from place to place, it is important to contact a criminal defense attorney familiar with the rulings in your state.
In addition, the federal government has also enacted terrorist threat statutes. These are a bit narrower than state laws and at this time punish threats to use weapons of mass destruction, threats to use chemical weapons and false reports about bombs. Because state and federal governments are considered separate sovereigns, double jeopardy does not apply. This means that you can be charged and punished by both the state and the federal government for the same illegal conduct.
What Are the Punishments for Making a Terrorist Threat?
The punishments for making a terrorist threat will depend on what state you are located in, and whether you are charged with a federal or state crime.
Sometimes the punishment can be as little as a year in the county jail. In other instances (especially under federal law), the punishments can be extremely severe. Individuals who threaten the use of a biological toxin can receive up to life in prison. The law provides for up to five years in prison for mailing communications that contain any threat to injure the addressee or any other person, and five years for those who lie to law enforcement officials about terrorist hoaxes.
Difficult Life Lessons
The bottom line here is that supervising adults need to watch their charge’s access to and activity on social media very carefully. The mobi age has replaced the days when one might monitor family member activity on a central home computer. To be mobile, anonymous and to access graphic, excessively violent and pornographic material at a very young age is a very real activity, and may change the worldview of the viewer and their perception of what is appropriate.
We recognize the great value in mobile technology as well; parents have the ability to quickly connect to children, especially in a crisis. On Tuesday of this past week during the tragic shooting at Reynolds High School, many parents were informed of the shooting and lockdown through text messages from their children, assuring the parents that they were unharmed. How many time has a parent breathed a sigh of relief when their child has called them rather than ride in a car with a substance-influenced driver? This ability to stay connected however, comes with a responsibility for parental oversight and education.
Young people are being handed a medium with global reach and significant power, and it’s clear that many are not experienced enough – or understandably, mature enough – to understand the implications and consequences of poor decision-making.
While the same may be said for many adults, never before in our history are such life lessons being learned in real-time and on a global stage.
Learn more about what can be done in schools and at home to educate our most precious resource, our children. And let’s hope none of them ever have to experience the side of this topic that is truly no joke.