By Jon Johnson and Brooke Curley
SAFFORD – At the time this is posted Monday, students would normally just be getting out of school. However, many students didn’t go to school today, due to threats that spread over social media.
A case of severe cyberbullying and a threat of the use of a gun to kill another student had parents withholding children from attending Safford schools Monday. The schools have already seen two suicides this year – an 18-year-old male student and a 13-year-old female student – both by hanging and at least one had been bullied.
Recently, one female victim, in particular, has been cyberbullied repeatedly via a Snapchat app since Oct. 23. Snapchat is an image messaging and multimedia mobile application originally released in 2011. It became popular as a means to send nude photos to people with the mistaken belief that they would expire and be automatically deleted.
In a series of posts, the perpetrator(s) insult the victim, encourage her to kill herself, threaten to kill her and to burn down her house, among other threats.
Safford Director of Instructional Services A.J. Taylor confirmed to Gila Valley Central that there were a number of students absent Monday but he didn’t have an accurate count. He said the threats took place off-campus and then were spread through conversation on-campus.
“When this started a while back, it was immediately brought to (the) administration’s attention and investigated right away – got the police involved and it’s still under investigation even now,” Taylor said.
The victim’s mother said after the first incident, the school called her and said the girl who had sent the Snapchat had been suspended for five days.
Taylor said some “appropriate” disciplinary action was taken when it was first reported but he said he could not elaborate on what type of action that was due to privacy issues.
After the suspension was over, however, the posts kept coming, including threatening to shoot the victim Monday after school. The parents went forward pressing charges, according to the victim’s mother, but authorities did not find incriminating evidence on the alleged perpetrator’s cell phone and, so far, have not made an arrest for cyberbullying, threatening or intimidating or for making death threats due to lack of evidence. The investigation is ongoing.
Sunday night, Safford Police Chief Joe Brugman posted a message on the SPD’s Facebook page regarding the situation.
“We place the safety of all citizens, especially our youth, at the highest level of our responsibility. In recent weeks a person or persons has posted inappropriate and threatening messages. Police staff is working to determine the origin of these messages. The actions of the perpetrator(s) clarify the warnings about the dangers of social media when used inappropriately, that all of us have heard from various sources. We ask that our students and parents know that the Safford Police Department is working with the schools and are doing everything in our power to ensure the safety of our students. Further, we are determined to find the source of these posts and to ensure that they are punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
The post did little to curb the tide of parents not wanting to send their children to school on Monday.
“My two high school kids are home, one child at Lafe Nelson went to school,” Tamara Edmunds-Ball wrote in a message to Gila Valley Central. “I’m not sure if that was the right decision, but for us, on this day, it’ll have to do. As parents, we have to each search ourselves and make the decision that feels most right for us. My kids didn’t feel comfortable with the possibility of being in that type of situation at school. Could it happen on another day? Absolutely, but today is the day that was threatened. I did not receive an email from the school. I did receive a very short, very unhelpful voicemail directing me to the district page from the high school.”
On the district page, Superintendent Ken VanWinkle acknowledged the cyberbullying and said appropriate disciplinary action had been taken and further action would occur. He also implored those with additional information to come forward and encouraged parents to not overreact on social media.
The victim’s mother said the family has no idea why her daughter has driven the ire of the bully and that her daughter told her last night she wanted to die just to make the bullying stop.
Taylor said the school continues to work with the police regarding the situation and get to the bottom of it as soon as they can. He also encouraged the general public to not overreact.
“We really appreciate their support,” Taylor said. “We really hope and ask that people be responsible on social media. It seems like things spin out of control on social media sometimes and people buy into things even when they don’t know if it’s true or not. Things just kind of get bigger and bigger. People get blasted and it creates a problem rather than help solve the problem.”
The victim’s mother held her child from going to school on Monday.
“She wanted to go, but I don’t want her to have to look over her shoulder or be scared,” she said. “She is already scared at home because of the threats of burning the house.”
The victim’s mother said she feels bad for the alleged perpetrator as well and that she believes she is cyberbullying others under fake Snapchats accounts. She advises parents to stay vigilant in their children’s lives.
“Be aware of anything that’s going on in kids’ lives – even adults’ lives,” she said. “We are all in this cruel world together. Why not build up rather than take down?”
Safford Police Chief Joe Brugman told Gila Valley Central that while the case is still under investigation an arrest is imminent. He said the police department has worked with the F.B.I. and has written five subpoenas to social media sites.
“I’m confident there will be an arrest,” Brugman said.
He also said while each parent has to make their own decision on what is best for their children, if his own children were in school he would have had them there today and will have them there tomorrow. The SPD has taken this case seriously, according to Brugman, and quadrupled their presence at the school Monday from a single resource officer to four officers on campus, two in marked police vehicles and two in unmarked. In fact, police investigated a suspicious vehicle in the area what turned out to be a Gila Valley Central reporter taking a picture of the school from the road.
“I fully understand parents parental concerns,” Brugman said. “In this day and age, we all need to take things seriously.”
Since the case involves Snapchat, it can be regarded as an interstate issue and the cyberbullying can be charged as a felony.
“If it is what it appears to be, it would fall under cyberbullying,” Brugman said.
While he couldn’t comment further, Brugman said news regarding the case will be forthcoming and will be worth the read.
Safford Superintendent Ken VanWinkle’s full statement:
“To Our Staff, Students, Parents and Community Members,
As a school community, we truly care about our students and their safety at school. At times situations arise which concern us and call for action by the schools. Sometimes, these situations also involve law enforcement. When these situations involve students, we cannot release all information as it could hinder an investigation or violate students’ rights, but we want to provide you with as much information as possible.
Over the past two weeks, we have had a social media/cyberbullying issue that was initially brought to SHS administration by several students who saw a comment on “Snapchat.” The school took immediate action and due to the type of cyberbullying, the police were involved. The investigation continues and serious consequences have been and will continue to be, rendered to those responsible. More of these particular cyberbullying statements have recently come forward and this situation continues to escalate. In this particular situation, we strongly believe others may have additional information about these posts and we ask you to please come forward and help us put a stop to this NOW!
Recently, parents and the extended community have become involved through social media, particularly Facebook. Comments have been made which could lead to protests. Some parents have even expressed concerns regarding sending their children to school.
As we have encouraged parents and students many times before, we must all take responsibility for our use and misuse of Social Media. Safford Schools does not and will not tolerate bullying in any form! We will deal with verified cases expediently and severely and will involve law enforcement. We ask for your help and support as we all strive to make this a great and safe place to be. We also ask that you get involved and be part of the solution by reminding everyone the importance of See Something, Say Something, Do Something.”
Gila Valley Moms sound off on the cyberbullying situation at Safford High School: The following are messages and posts to our reporter Brooke Curley regarding the situation.
“My two high school kids are home, one child at Lafe Nelson went to school. I’m not sure if that was the right decision, but for us, on this day, it’ll have to do. As parents, we have to each search ourselves and make the decision that feels most right for us. My kids didn’t feel comfortable with the possibility of being in that type of situation at school. Could it happen on another day? Absolutely…but today is the day that was threatened. I did not receive an email from the school. I did receive a very short, very unhelpful voicemail, directing me to the district page, from the high school.” – Tamara Edmunds-Ball
“I kept my child home. I think the school needs to let us know what measures they are taking to ensure the safety of our children. I posted this on the Safford police I would like to know what actions are SHS and the SPD going to take to increase security and safety for all students? Is there just going to be an increase in police presence? Are they going to lockdown the school more and have students not have more or less free reign? Is there going to be bags checked and a metal detector installed? What measures are going to be taken? I don’t need to know about the children involved just what steps they are taking and for how long. It is crazy to think that if they have a zero tolerance to violence how this situation is being tolerated instead of handled.” – Karie Dryden
“My kids don’t go to the high school but to SMS and Ruth Powell. I didn’t feel safe enough to send them today. I am sitting home wondering will it ever feel safe again? We can’t spend our lives hiding but life eventually has to go back to normal. It’s so sad this is happening in our community.” – Stephanie Tessay
“We just got stickers about speaking up at parent-teacher conferences! My kids are at DSS so they went to school but if they were at SHS then they wouldn’t have gone. This needs to be taken seriously.” – Niki Colley
“There are so many things that can be done to help prevent bullying – most of which start at home. Tackling this will have to include classes/training for parents. And all parents will have to be willing to attend.” Tamara Edmunds-Ball
“While I think there is a serious threat at SHS, my son is at DS and did go to school today. I don’t feel that he is in any danger.” – Kayla Soohy
“My high school student also didn’t go today because the fact she hasn’t and didn’t feel safe going when the first threat was put out there I did send her an told her if anything felt out of place to call me but with this second threat I an her self didn’t feel safe she is friends with the girl getting the threats so she didn’t feel safe we love an will stand behind Leslie Jurado an her daughter through all this an with the email that came through I feel they should have addressed the issue last week when there was a threat of a knife or gun going to the school I understand that they got a lot to go through with this but why all of a sudden the community coming together an keeping kids home they wanna enforce it that is my opinion an I hope all kids can go back to school feeling safe.” – SaraDaniel Ornelas
“ My child goes to LNS I keep him home because I feel the Safford school district does not really do anything when it comes to being bullied my son is in second grade and he gets bullied by others i think laws need too be made i think SPD needs too do there jobs better this this child that they are saying has been bullied for 2 weeks the school only mentioned it last night to parents there is a lot of shootings in schools there’s a lot of going on in school and we only heard about this last night most cities would lock down the school let the parents know the incident that that school was being threatened. suicides going on because children are getting bullied and their logo see something say something do something they’re not doing anything that’s why I kept my child home my sister kept two of her SHS students home and her son from Ruth Powell home.” – Lydia Rodriguez
“I did send my kiddos to school today I am very worried most of the time about their safety at school but today more So than others. If I have to start keeping them home because things get worse I will just do the job our district seems unwilling to do and that is teaching my children in a safe environment!” – Jackie Dowdney
This article was updated at 6:40 p.m. Monday