News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 19, 2012

Arrest made in Vigo school threat

17-year-old allegedly scrawled ‘very low-level’ threat in bathroom

TERRE HAUTE — A 17-year-old Terre Haute South Vigo High School student has been arrested in connection with a “very low-level” written threat discovered at the school Monday.

Officials announced the arrest at a news conference late Tuesday afternoon. Several Terre Haute city police detectives were involved in the investigation.

Superintendent Dan Tanoos credited city police for “a fantastic job of investigating, interviewing and ultimately making an arrest” of the 17-year-old male at South.

The youth was arrested on suspicion of intimidation, a class-D felony, said Shawn Keen, assistant chief of investigations for the Terre Haute Police Department.

The 17-year-old was taken to the juvenile center and faces juvenile proceedings.

The student also faces school expulsion proceedings, Tanoos said.

For an adult, a class-D felony carries a penalty range of six months to three years’ imprisonment, said Terry Modesitt, Vigo County Prosecutor.

Tanoos declined to give details about the threat, which he described as “very low level.”

Tanoos also stated, “It’s a shame that a student would make a low-level threat during such a tragic time and also take the [law enforcement] resources off the streets of Terre Haute and out of the county to have to spend on an issue such as this.”

He was referring to heightened concerns in the aftermath of Friday’s school shooting at Newtown, Connecticut.

According to Keen, about nine investigators were involved from the juvenile unit, violent crimes unit and other supervisors from the investigative division.  A handwriting expert also was involved.

“We made it a priority that we were going to do as much as we possibly could to resolve this as quickly as possible,” Keen said. “They did a fantastic job. In just a matter of hours, the person responsible has been arrested and hopefully that will ease some minds as to the level of this threat.”

Officials at the press conference issued a stern warning to anyone else who might consider a “prank” such as the one that occurred at South.

“Were not going to take lightly even low level threats,” Modesitt said. The prosecutor’s office will act “immediately and sternly. We’re not going to tolerate any type of threats.”

Sheriff Greg Ewing said school threats, even if intended as a prank, are disruptive to the school day and take away law enforcement resources. “Let this be a lesson to anybody else who thinks it’s funny because it is not funny at all,” he said.

On Monday, Tanoos did send out an automated “all-call” to 18,700 people to assure them that steps were being taken to keep all schools safe and secure. The call did not specifically address the situation at South.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, South Principal Chris Mauk sent out an automated phone call to let the school community know “we felt this was a hoax,” Tanoos said. Officials also knew at that time there would be an arrest.

Tanoos was aware that social media spread rumors about possible threats at North and West Vigo high schools. “There was never, ever a threat at North or West or any other school as related to this issue,” Tanoos said.

While not confirmed by Tanoos, the threat — written in a bathroom — allegedly referenced the shooting in Connecticut where 20 students and six educators were gunned down Friday.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, city police confirmed they were investigating a threat at South.

As a result, “We’ve increased our presence there,” said city police chief John Plasse. “It’s probably the safest place to be in Terre Haute today.”

But some parents and a grandparent said they believed the school district should have addressed the matter sooner to calm concerns.

One grandparent who contacted the Tribune-Star stated her granddaughter did not go to school at South Vigo Tuesday after learning Monday night there had been some kind of threat. Others parents expressed concerns about the situation, although their children did attend school at South Tuesday, they told the Tribune-Star.

Attendance was down at South Vigo on Tuesday. “We had attendance at about 87 percent today [Tuesday] at South. Normally it is about 95 percent,” said Ray Azar, VCSC director of student services. He attributed some of the absences to early Christmas vacations.

After the news conference, Tanoos defended the way he handled the incident as far as communication with the public.

It was a very low level threat, a prank, he said. “It was treated as we would any other.”

Tanoos said he didn’t want to send out anything specific about the South Vigo situation Monday evening because “I didn’t want to get in the middle of the investigation.”

He also stated, “I would never have school if I thought there was a true threat.”

Tanoos believes the more general, automated call he sent out Monday was the appropriate response. “I felt we did all we needed to do at that time,” he said. “I didn’t want to heighten any more concerns than already existed.”

During the news conference, Tanoos said that even after this week, officials will continue to meet to talk about school safety. What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary “has changed the whole game plan of school security,” he said. “When you kill innocent children … to the level of poor little kindergarten and first-grade kids, that’s very sad and frightening.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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