Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry, left, and Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette, right, speak to reporters at a Friday morning press conference. / W.C. Mann
CULLMAN – It’s been a tough week for some educators and law enforcement personnel in Cullman County, capped off on Friday morning when Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry and County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette in a press conference reported two area high school students were arrested for making terrorist threats. The charges are in connection with incidents on Wednesday involving Vinemont and Good Hope High Schools.
On Wednesday, two people using false online accounts posted what were perceived as threats of violence to students at Vinemont High School and Good Hope High School. One was posted online, and one was sent through a group text using the app Text Now. Students and parents immediately began contacting officials with the schools, the Cullman County Board of Education (CCBOE) and the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), whose combined personnel worked through the night and school day Thursday to secure the schools, assess the threats and identify those responsible.
Early Thursday morning, Gentry told the community via a Tribune Facebook livestream, “First and foremost, I want the citizens to know that your children are safe, and that’s the main priority. As a parent, as a father, you know, that’s my main priority. I want to make sure my kids are safe, your children are safe; because–I’ve said this a million times–our children are our most valuable resource. And it does–it infuriates me when we have people that try to harm our children.”
All Cullman city and county schools have resource deputies or officers permanently assigned to be present during school hours Monday through Friday. During these incidents, schools have seen a heightened law enforcement presence with extra officers present on campuses countywide.
Good Hope High School student identified and apprehended
By mid-morning on Thursday, CCBOE Superintendent Shane Barnette reported that a Good Hope student had been identified as the source of the threat at that school and had been taken into custody. The student is a juvenile male whose name was not released.
The threat at Good Hope was posted on social media Wednesday night.
“We have that person in custody now,” said Barnette. “It was a young person that made a poor decision. He thought he was being funny. And I talked to him and his family this morning and he thought–he’d seen other stuff like it on Facebook and other places, and he thought he’d go on there and try to be funny.
“We’ve got his attention. It’s not funny. He’s been turned over to authorities, and it’s up to them what they do with him from that standpoint. And he has withdrawn from our school system. If he decides to come back to our school system, there’ll be punishment from the school system’s standpoint, but right now, we’re letting the authorities handle that.”
Vinemont High School senior identified and apprehended
On Thursday evening the CCSO arrested Emily Nicole Wilson, 18, who it says issued the threat to Vinemont High School. Wilson, a student at Vinemont, told investigators that she was trying to get more time to study for a math test by disrupting the school schedule.
On Wednesday night, using an app called TextNow to reach several Vinemont seniors, Wilson posted Thursday’s date with a gun emoji and the statement “(f**k) all y’all mfrs.”
According to Gentry, Wilson was booked into the Cullman County Detention Center and released on bail.
“Miss Wilson, a young girl,” said Gentry, “didn’t really have any issues. She’s 18 years old and had the forethought of doing something that would give her time to study for a test. Now, this is a very serious situation. When we make the decision to do something to give us time to take a test–well, guess what? The end result is you get arrested and you go to jail for making a terroristic threat.
“And that is how serious it is today. And I think we, as a community, as parents, we need to talk to our children about that. We need to talk to them about being responsible, making good decisions, being good leaders, because guess what–now, 48 hours later, we have two children who had various reasons for doing things. Well, now their lives have been turned upside down, just the same as our community has been turned upside down for the last 48 hours.”
What is a terrorist threat?
The Alabama Criminal Code, Section 13A-10-15 offers the following definition of a terrorist threat:
(a) A person commits the crime of making a terrorist threat when he or she threatens by any means to commit any crime of violence or to damage any property by doing any of the following:
(1) Intentionally or recklessly:
a. Terrorizing another person.
b. Causing the disruption of school activities.
c. Causing the evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation, or other serious public inconvenience.
(2) With the intent to retaliate against any person who:
a. Attends a judicial or administrative proceeding as a witness or party or produces records, documents, or other objects in a judicial proceeding.
b. Provides to a law enforcement officer, adult or juvenile probation officer, prosecuting attorney, or judge any information relating to the commission or possible commission of an offense under the laws of this state, of the United States, or a violation of conditions of bail, pretrial release, probation, or parole.
(b) The crime of making a terrorist threat is a Class C felony.
In Alabama, a class C felony carries a sentence for adults of from “one year plus one day” up to 10 years, and a fine of up to $15,000. Sentencing for a juvenile offender is unclear.
Sheriff and superintendent issue warning and appeal
Reflecting on last week’s tragic school shooting in Florida, the sheriff shared, “Any time you have a school shooting, you have a lot of copycats. You have a lot of people that want to elevate the situation or copy what somebody else did. And they like to cause mass havoc, you know, and they use social media as a tool to do that . . . Within five minutes, we have an issue that is viral.
“The main thing I want these kids to know, and anybody that does this, is that this is 2018; things are different. If you don’t want to go to school, it is a lot better off for you not to go to school, than you to make a post that goes viral, and then we’re going to come and arrest you for making a terroristic threat, because you’ve caused a lot of fear and discontent within the community, and that’s just not good, and that’s not something that needs to be promoted within these systems.”
At Friday’s press conference, Barnette noted an all-call he had sent to county school parents Thursday evening, saying:
“I asked three things that I need from them, and one of those is for them to sit down with every one of their children and talk to them about how serious this is. This is no longer ‘Hey, this is funny’ or ‘Hey, we’re gonna get out of class’ or get out of a school day. This is serious stuff, so I asked them to have that conversation with their children.
“And the second thing I’ve asked families to do is periodically go and review their children’s social media. Deal with that in your family before it becomes a school issue. If they see suggestive stuff in there, threatening things in there, before it goes public, go ahead and address that and deal with it then.
“And then the third thing that I’ve asked our families to do is, if something’s not truthful or if they don’t know that first-hand, don’t be going online and continuing those posts or forwarding those posts, because that’s one of the things that can stall an investigation is when we have a lot of false information that’s being passed around and stuff, and we don’t need that.”
Near the conclusion of the press conference, the superintendent shared, “Young people are making poor decisions because they don’t realize how serious things like this are, and they’ve just really got to think twice before they do something like this.”
This week’s incidents are not the first of their kind in Cullman County this year. Last week, Fairview High School was on a soft lockdown following online threats that turned out not to be credible.
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