Highland News Leader

Bullying incident at Highland school prompts investigation, but charges are not likely, police say

The sign in front of Highland Middle School. On Feb. 21, administrators from the Highland School District and Highland police officers spent about nine hours investigating a threat made by a HMS student towards another student.
The sign in front of Highland Middle School. On Feb. 21, administrators from the Highland School District and Highland police officers spent about nine hours investigating a threat made by a HMS student towards another student. mbraa@bnd.com

After a nine-hour investigation Wednesday night into an alleged threat made to a middle school student, Highland police and school officials determined criminal charges were not appropriate.

“I don’t anticipate that there is anything that will come criminally out of it,” said Highland Police Lt. Chris Conrad.

"Moving forward, we do not feel there is a viable threat to the safety of students and staff," said Mike Sutton, Highland superintendent of schools.

On Feb. 21, the Highland Middle School Principal Dr. Erick Baer sent out an email to parents indicating that there was an incident where students reported a threat made by another student. Sutton said the event allegedly occurred during school hours in the prior week.

The incident was first reported on Feb. 20 and was investigated by school administration and the Highland Police Department. Both felt there was no threat to student safety, Sutton said.

However, Conrad said another incident was reported on Wednesday evening, which involved the same students and prompted more investigation. A sergeant, detective and a couple of officers and began tracing the new allegations. Sgt. Scott Athmer said the team was investigating the incident until about midnight.

Conrad said the hours were spent interviewing parents and students, and tracking down rumors, which he said is not uncommon when dealing with younger students.

"When we get these reports, we take them very seriously, and we dedicate a lot of resources to determining whether or not the threats are credible," Conrad said.

After the rumors were sifted out, Conrad said police determined the report was different information about the same Feb. 20 incident.

"Basically we had a handful of teenagers who made a series of poor decisions and actions, as teenagers will do, that led to the incident in question," Conrad said.

Conrad said it all started with a "young student who was experiencing some unkind actions and words."

“Directly involved, I think there was less than four (students),” Conrad said.

In a follow-up email sent on Thursday afternoon, Baer told parents that the actions were "repeatedly directed toward the student."

In response, the student then made some retaliatory statements, according to Conrad. The details of the statements were not disclosed.

Sutton said the alleged statements might have taken on a different meanings to the students, and it was important to get to the root of that meaning.

"What we know is that we are dealing with kids, and out of emotion, kids say things," Sutton said.

However, Conrad said that the interviews brought up some issues the department felt the district could address in-house.

"We continue to work with our local law officials to investigate any types of comments or actions that may threaten the safety of our students," Sutton said.

The department will present its investigation findings to the Madison County State Attorney's Office and will see if they have guidance or recommendations for the schools, Conrad said.

Though the comments were not considered a threat, the police department will continue routine patrols around school campuses. Sgt. Athmer said two officers were present at HMS on Wednesday.

Baer, the HMS principal, and Assistant Principal Liz Weder visited classrooms on Thursday to address student concerns and questions. The talks included topics, like:

  • what to do if you see a gun on the bus;

  • why students cannot have cell phones;

  • triggers for school violence; and

  • the importance of reporting threats.

"I know they felt like they had a lot of good conversations yesterday," Sutton said on Friday.

Baer also relayed that all district employees are “4E” trained. The-four hour program on how to deal with active-killer incidents that instructs teachers to: educate, evade, escape and engage.

Students were also reminded to report all first-hand incidents they see or hear, and to not be a bystander. Currently, HMS has a system where students can report incidents online.

Conrad said that this incident shows something regarding the district's prevention efforts.

"This is a good example of kids doing what we ask them to do," Conrad said.

Conrad said good to identify and address such incidents before they grow into something bigger. He also recommended parents use this opportunity to sit down and talk to their children about bullying, school violence, and how they can be prevented.

During the investigation, Conrad said involved parties were generally concerned and were cooperative. He said the department wanted to thank the community for its help.

"We definitely appreciate all the cooperation we got," he said.