Monday, April 12, 2021

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Family of DHHS Student Threatened by Classmate Speaks Out

Last Wednesday, March 24, a Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) mother was scanning through her daughter’s phone in what she characterized as a regular part of her parental oversight.

In the phone’s text messages, the mother discovered something shocking, urgent, and horrifying. A few days earlier, another DHHS student—an on-again, off-again friend—had threatened, in excruciating detail and with ugly, gendered language, to shoot and kill her daughter. Included in the texts were references to other alleged shooters, along with messages seemingly showing the other student following or stalking the girl.

The mother immediately called the schools and the police to report the threat. Over the next few days, though, she said what happened was not a reckoning, not a swift move to address the messages and potential danger to one family or possibly more in the community. Instead, the mother described what she sees as a systematic failure by institutions and leaders to ensure the daughter and her family were safe, and further failed to prioritize the girl’s ability to live normally or continue her education as the threat was downplayed. She also expressed concern that the student who made the alleged threats may have been granted lenience or indulgence.

The Source spoke to the family members of the female student, who were granted anonymity to protect the privacy of the daughter, a minor. Many of the text messages between the daughter and the alleged threatener were already posted on social media with the family’s permission, and the family additionally provided emails between itself and school and police officials.

In taking the direct action to confront local leaders and in speaking to the media, the mother was explicit in her intention: that her daughter not be made a victim and end up forced to change schools or go into hiding due to the ongoing threat. Though the mother made it clear that she lost faith in many of the institutions most critical to protecting her daughter, in extensive conversations with The Source, she also was vehement that no one had any intention of hiding, of running, of despairing in the face of these circumstances

“We’re not that family,” she said.

The contents of the text messages are explicit in their intention of violence. The student making the threats calls the girl a “bitch” multiple times, and ordering “kill yourself.” He repeats that he is not lying or joking, and says specifically he planned to kill her in school.

Repeating that he will shoot her, the male student added “save your air,” and “I’ve got shooters on [you],” referencing two other persons by name. The last message he sent before days of silence, according to the mother, was simply “I’m going to shoot you.”

The mother of the girl described her daughter as both deeply struggling but fully determined to not be intimidated. With the situation still not resolved, the mother said the family continues to battle the emotions—anger, outrage, anxiety—but is also driven by a determination not to let the trauma and seriousness of the threat be brushed aside by schools, police, or the community.

“It’s a balancing act of not letting it overcome every second of your life but also doing everything we can to protect our daughter,” she said.

Guns and First Response

What happened on March 24 after these messages were brought to the attention of the schools and the Madison Police Department (MPD) was that officers visited the home of the male student who allegedly made the threats. According to the mother of the female student, the teenage boy was alone when police arrived.

The MPD quickly determined the family of the male student possessed multiple firearms, according to MPD Captain Joe Race.

Police said because the male student is a juvenile, he was not taken into custody despite these circumstances, though police reviewed and confirmed the veracity of the texts. There were no other searches conducted of the premises.

In a conversation with The Source last week, Race characterized the status of the firearms in the home as competent, legal, and thoughtful, with the family having licenses for the weapons and a locked and secured safe.

Later on March 24, police returned to visit the home of the student who allegedly made the threats, and the family voluntarily turned over some firearms, according to Race. Race did not say that there were no firearms in the house after this, but did say the police were “grateful” and that it should have “put everyone at ease.”

Race also did not say last week whether it was police who suggested or requested the firearms be turned over, or what the impetus for those conversations were, only saying that he was sure “all options were discussed.”

There continued to be firearms, and still were firearms in the house of the male student who made the alleged threat, as of March 29, however.

The Source obtained information that as of March 29 MPD believed the family owned “well more” guns than were registered in their name in the state police database, and that they were still trying to transfer or sell these other weapons to other members of the family outside the house, with the reason being that the weapons would be out of their hands permanently rather than in the temporary custody of the MPD.

Additionally, on the subject of whether police had independently confirmed the number or types of guns in the house in any way, MPD Chief Jack Drumm said he did not know as of March 29. The officer who received the weapons that were voluntarily turned over had in fact met the father of the student who allegedly made the threat outside the home rather than going into the house.

Officers also would not say whether or not they were sure that the family did not possess firearms on the “ban list,” mostly semi-automatic weapons with high capacity magazines or certain types of grips, that are illegal in Connecticut (with very limited exceptions).

Race told The Source March 30 that he was not willing to engage the mother through the media, and that information put out by MPD was being “misinterpreted” or “spun” through social media and other channels.

He reiterated that MPD officers have “chased down and are chasing down any leads that have been part of this,” and that the family of the male student who made the threat are lawful gun owners. He declined to comment on the specific information on guns that were not turned over, or guns in the house.

“There’s no law that says you can’t have [guns],” he said.

The mother of the female student described the initial feeling of being told that the boy who had threatened her daughter with guns was being left in a house with guns, with no other conditions or restrictions imposed on him at least as far as law enforcement was concerned.

“My face just dropped, my jaw dropped open,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god I have to go get a protective order.’”

Police did provide an increased presence at DHHS on March 25 and 26 and at other school events over the weekend, which Race characterized as a precautionary measure, and was done at the request of the district.

But more than that, the mother of the female student said she was angry and disappointed at an initial lack of response from the MPD higher-ups. She said that she spoke to one MPD officer, Odino Rasiile, who suggested she could hire an armed guard to accompany her daughter to school at the family’s expense, which she said felt ridiculous, patronizing, and part of a pattern that puts the responsibility on the victim. Emails show that school officials told the parents that an armed guard would not be allowed.

But the family had received no response from Race or Drumm despite multiple attempts to reach them, until the afternoon of March 29.

That was when the family brought in more family, members of motorcycle clubs. These men made themselves “very visible” in Madison, the mother said, riding motorcycles and wearing insignia related to the clubs, including One Percenters, an extremely broad classification that sometimes includes involvement in violent criminal enterprises, but also many clubs and members focused on practices of fraternal loyalty and independence.

The mother described these men as extended family members, many of whom have daughters of their own, and are in town to ensure her daughter remains safe.

“They intend to be around,” she said.

Race said police were aware of these men, who he confirmed had escorted the family to MPD headquarters on March 29.

“People are allowed to have their extended family here,” he said.

It was minutes after the initial arrival of the extended family members that the mother said she finally heard back from MPD higher-ups. A meeting quickly scheduled on March 29 included an escort by the extended family, which waited outside the police station and caused consternation among the police ranks, according to the mother.

The mother said she told Drumm these men were not armed, though he described their presence as “ominous.”

It was at this meeting, which the daughter also attended, that MPD told the family they were investigating the identity or potentiality of other shooters referenced in the male student’s text messages.

Other questions the mother asked—why stalking charges weren’t pursued, why the student who made the threats was not put into protective custody for mental health issues, or why searches weren’t authorized—were explained as having to do with the many statutory and legal restrictions around these issues, she said, particularly is it pertains to juveniles.

Though she described Drumm and the other officers at the meeting being “kind” to her daughter, the mother added it was “inappropriate” that the daughter was answering questions in a police station at this point, given the totality of the circumstances.

The Law and Police

The conditions required to incarcerate a juvenile were recently made more restrictive in Connecticut, with a judge’s order needed to put someone under the age of 18 in a detention center. According to the state Office of Policy Management, that judge will need to determine that there is probable cause for the actions alleged, and additionally that there is “no less restrictive alternative available.”

Finally, a judge must decide the actions of a juvenile “pose a risk to public safety if released to the community prior to the court hearing or disposition.”

Race told The Source last week that MPD could theoretically petition a judge for that order to incarcerate the student who allegedly made the threat, but that “even if we thought” that the circumstances merited incarceration, “based on the criteria,” it would not meet the standards under law.

“It’s really the threat. There really wasn’t any action toward it. He didn’t have any access to firearms...We were very confident in that,” Race said.

The mother of the female student said she vehemently disagrees that there was “no action” taken, citing the text messages in which the other student appeared to be watching her daughter. The text messages also refer to at least two other people by name, as well as other unnamed “shooters,” whose identities are not yet clear.

The fact that it took five days for MPD to open that investigation was also inexplicable, she said, considering the contents of the text messages. Drumm and others also refused to say whether it was still in MPD’s power to add additional charges—stalking in particular—against the other student based on current evidence, according to the mother.

The mother added that she had been made aware that the student who made the threat had also been speaking to other friends about her daughter and his anger toward her.

“There are commonalities between the kids who do...engage in mass shootings,” she said.

While admitting that she was not an expert in matters of gun violence or school shootings, the mother argued that it was obvious by any standard that anyone charged with protecting the community that there was, and continues to be a danger.

“If our society continues to handle it that way...perhaps it is this mentality that is allowing this [behavior] to persist,” she said.

One action that the mother of the female student had been lobbying for was finally taken the evening of March 29, she said, when MPD swept DHHS for weapons. That search did not turn up any firearms, according to the mother, but that alone was not enough for her daughter to feel safe in the building.

The mother added that she is still grateful that circumstances did not turn out worse, and that no one was shot. She said she hoped she and her daughter speaking out helped not only hold the male student accountable, but also put him on a path to getting any issues he might have addressed.

“This could have been a tragedy,” she said.

In the Schools

Another actor in this incident is the school district. The mother of the female student said that her daughter has not been in classes since March 24, when the text messages were released, and that she will not be attending school until there are assurances that it is safe—namely, when those who might threaten her daughter’s life are not at DHHS.

The mother said she has petitioned for an emergency Board of Education (BOE) hearing to get answers on the issues at hand and ask questions about policy.

A source with direct knowledge of the BOE’s process and plans said that a meeting would not be likely nor advisable any time before a planned expulsion hearing for the student who had made the threats because it would jeopardize due process and potentially “prejudice” members of the BOE, who will be required to independently consider the facts of the case.

That expulsion hearing, the source said, is scheduled for Tuesday, April 6, which the source characterized as relatively expeditious as far as these processes usually run. The schools must give five business days written notice to parents of a student who is to be subject to an expulsion hearing.

Federal and state privacy laws provide extensive restrictions on releasing attendance records, disciplinary proceedings, or other information about students.

But there are exceptions. According to the Connecticut state judicial website, the district can disclose information to “appropriate individuals” when the information involved has to do with “circumstances such as criminal acts, usually involving weapons and drugs, or crisis situations that affect schools or the general public’s health and safety.”

In response to detailed questions from The Source regarding the relevant laws, the district’s interaction with both families as well as the police, how the schools had handled the incident internally, or even generally how violations of the DHHS code of conduct are handled, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Craig Cooke responded March 29 that “we are unable to answer at this time.”

The student handbook provides guidance that “verbal harassment or threatening physical harm” can result in “up to” three days suspension. It also requires mandatory reporting to the State Department of Education, but it was not clear if the school-related punishments were mandatory.

The only offense in the handbook that appears to provide a mandatory punishment of any kind—in this case, expulsion—is the sale of drugs or controlled substances.

According to the female student’s mother, Cooke and DHHS Principal T.J. Salutari have referred repeatedly back to the law and advice of counsel when asked whether the student who made the threat is on campus, or will continue to be a student at DHHS. At one point Salutari told her that her daughter should “feel safe” returning to school, she said, but would not elaborate further.

“My daughter can’t resume normal life, and I don’t see anything that is being done even now,” she said.

At one point, she said Cooke told her that she could contact the family of the student who allegedly made the threat, because they could voluntarily provide information about where their son was.

“[The father] hung up in my face,” she said.

The Source was unable to independently confirm this incident through the schools or the family of the male student.

Many other actions taken or not taken by district leadership over the last week follow what the mother described as a pattern of obfuscation and a de-prioritizing of her daughter’s wellbeing. Teachers and guidance counselors who work with her daughter were not all informed of the situation, she said, with some contacting the family to ask why she hadn’t been to school. It took until March 26, for a counselor to reach out and check on her daughter, she said.

The Source was also able to review some emails exchanged between the family and school officials, in which detailed messages are often met with curt or formulaic responses.

In one email, Cooke told the mother that the text messages and emails circulating on social media “are going to make our process more difficult.”

In response to a recent email from the mother informing the school that her daughter would be attending remote classes indefinitely, Salutari wrote only, “Thank you for this attendance information.”

Cooke did at times try to express sympathy for the family, saying that he “understood” some of the school’s response “isn’t enough for you.” Cooke said he would follow through with a request for specific redacted documents in regards to the male student’s discipline or attendance through the district’s lawyers, but did not provide a timeline to the family for this, the family said.

The mother also said she did not receive any kind of communication from the district after initially reporting the text messages on March 24, until an email had already gone out to every other DHHS family late that night vaguely referring to the alleged threat.

That email did not go to Polson families, however, which some community members on social media decried as a severe oversight, since that building is essentially on the same property as DHHS.

The mother of the female student described being completely taken aback that there were no allowances made within the procedures and laws to account for her situation. School officials claimed to have no ability to explicitly assure her that her daughter would not be in the same building or even the same classroom as someone who last week had made serious threats against her life, the mother described, though at times still told her that the daughter could return safely.

“I’m picturing my daughter lying on the floor [of the school] with a bullet hole, gasping for air, dying,” she said.

And despite the obvious gendered nature of the language in the threats, the mother said she was disappointed that nothing in the code of conduct or bylaws listed gender as a protected class, though Title IX explicitly puts the onus on schools to address sexual harassment or sexual violence even if there is a criminal aspect to the case.

Another member of the family said he felt that the omission of gender as a protected class was not an accident, saying that the law firm contracted by the district could easily have inserted that language into the handbook.

“It’s purposeful, it’s deliberate. Women are second-class citizens,” he said

Because the male student also made sexually explicit and derogatory comments, the mother said she considered framing the threat as heterosexual discrimination just to convince officials to take it more seriously, since the schools do include sexual orientation as a protected class in their hate crime bylaws.

“I suspect Mr. Salutari...wouldn’t want his daughter to be talked to that way,” the mother said.

Community Response

The mother confirmed to The Source that she has been involved with the social media posts on behalf of her family. She said that while she wants to maintain anonymity for the sake of her daughter, she felt that it was incredibly important that the Madison community hear the story of what she has been through, both the emotional struggle and more important, the burden that schools, police, and other systems place on victims just to get some basic assurance of their safety.

She also said she didn’t want to use the word “victim” to describe her daughter.

“For our society, victim connotes that you are hiding,” she said. “And it’s apparent from the community dialogue that people want that, they want hiding.”

Many people on Facebook have responded to screenshots of the text messages or other information purported to describe the female student and her parent’s thinking with dismissiveness or even hostility. Some argued that social media is not the right venue to have the discussion, and others urged that the process be allowed to play out behind closed doors through the school and police channels.

The mother of the female student said she had personally watched the conversations play out on the public Facebook pages, and that much of the reaction showed that people were willing to sweep even egregious conduct under the rug, framing the incident as a need to protect the rights or reputation of boys and young men, often at the expense of the safety of girls like her daughter.

Both the mother and social media commenters referred to an incident in 2009 when a female Madison student was raped by classmates, and the perpetrators were allowed to continue to attend school where they allegedly harassed the girl further and spread pictures of the rape. The mother said incidents like this one showed the schools did not deserve the benefit of the doubt in cases like this one.

Many other commenters on the relevant Facebook posts expressed sympathy, and described the lack of protection for female students as both horrifying and typical of Madison. Some shared their own experiences, having serious incidents of harassment disappear, with no closure as the opaque operations of in-school disciplinary hearings and procedures swallowed the outcome.

The mother said the lack of help or protection has extended outside the school system and local police department. A protective order she filed for on March 26 was initially denied, then delayed until April 5.

The mother was also defiant toward people who she claimed have tried to indirectly “bully” her and the family into revealing their identities, saying that “if and when we deem it appropriate and necessary, we will do that.” Extended family members will in fact remain in Madison to help keep the girl safe as long as is necessary, she said.

But speaking out in defense of her daughter is something the whole family will never stop doing, she promised. She added that her daughter has been involved in the decision making about what avenues to pursue and what information is released, and is dedicated to being part of her own advocacy.

The mother described the feeling of moving forward and taking these actions under a sometimes debilitating cloud of anxiety as necessary for the family, not just necessary in the sense that they currently feel it’s up to them to protect the daughter, but also in a larger sense: That staying and fighting for respect, justice, and safety within their community is not an optional undertaking, but is in fact the only way to guarantee that any town or school can include these essential values.

“My daughter is not going to be shipped off to some other school,” the mother said. “She’s really looking forward to getting back to a normal life.”


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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