By Adam Blake, Print Editor in Chief
The Contra Costa District Attorney’s office opted not to file criminal charges in 2015 for a student’s online posting in 2014 of words and images that Acalanes administrators and law enforcement officials perceived as a potentially lethal threat against Acalanes by a former student.
Police arrested the student, a class of 2014 senior, on June 6, 2014 and charged him with making illegal threats that resulted in a lockdown earlier that day.
After being held in jail and making bail hours after his arrest, the student awaited a decision for months from the District Attorney’s office as to whether or not he would be prosecuted.
“It’s a giant weight off my back now that it’s finally over,” he said.
The administration reached the decision to shutter the school and make students shelter in place after a classmate expressed concern to Acalanes administration regarding comments he said he overheard while in a brief, casual conversation in a classroom with the student.
The student asked when the senior picnic was going to be held and allegedly uttered the statement that the event would be where he would “exact his revenge.”
The former student also claims that he saw other, earlier threats posted by the student on Facebook, at least one directed at former Acalanes principal Aida Glimme specifically, which he says have since been deleted.
An image he posted on Facebook and Instagram with the caption “I AM DEATH” at around 2 a.m. on June 6 also weighed heavily with site administrators’ minds that the school could be in danger. The posting came just two weeks after the Isla Vista massacre next to UC Santa Barbara and in the wake of other school shootings.
This situation and others similar have made administration increasingly more wary of potential dangers, such as this, that concern student safety.
“The shootings bring heightened awareness of the issue,” Glimme said. “We learn from every story nationwide, what to do and what not to do. All of those schools’ stories influence how we react in a situation as we learn from their experiences and want to prevent the same event at our school.”
After administrators were unable to contact the student, they initiated a lockdown that lasted nearly four hours.
“[It] wasn’t any one of those things separately that caused us to go into a lockdown,” Glimme said. “It was a lot of the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit at that moment together that gave us the reason to react the way we reacted.”
With Acalanes secured under lockdown, Lafayette police arrested the student citing California penal code section 422 which “is a section called terrorist threats,” according to Lafayette Chief of Police Eric Christensen. “It talks about people who make threats or people who make implied threats with the intent to essentially terrorize other people.”
While the code does not contain any explicit mention of “terrorist” or “terrorism,” it does say a threat can be a crime when it causes a person “reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety” even if there is no intent to carry it out.
The section also requires that the words have to be “unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific,” which puts a high burden of proof on authorities.
The Contra Costa District Attorney’s office received the complete police report in October 2014. Deputy district attorney John Yamaguchi commented that the decision not to press charges was reached because, “There was a lack of sufficient evidence to establish any specific intent to threaten anyone or the school.”
“The remark was rather ambiguous, and I didn’t see anything directed at anybody,” he added.
Acalanes history teacher Joseph Schottland was one of several faculty members who spent a great deal of time and energy planning the Senior day, most of which was canceled as the result of the lockdown.
“Quite frankly before he made that decision, it would been nice had they consulted the aggrieved victim which would have been us,” Schottland said. “What I personally would have asked for in exchange of dropping the charges was a sincere letter of apology from Mr. [name withheld] to the school and to the students. I think that that would have been appropriate.”
Students had mixed reactions to the decision not to charge. Former Acalanes student and classmate of the student’s Kimberly Ho shared her opinion on the decision.
“I think not charging him was probably the easiest and most reasonable thing to do,” Ho said. “Perhaps a better alternative would be some kind of psychological treatment or someone periodically following up on him, not because he’s a monster or anything, but because it’s important to make sure he’s on track after an incident like that.”
When asked about the specific allegations against him, the student denied them unequivocally in an interview.
Nonetheless, in his second interview, concerning the postings, he said that, “I don’t regret what I posted. I think the way that people interpreted it that’s their fault. That’s a problem that they had. I had no intentions of hurting people. I didn’t want to scare people when I posted that. I thought it looked cool and so I posted it. People overreacted.”
While he characterized the photo as, “just me making a face,” he acknowledged that, “ I looked like I was dead so I was like, ‘I am death’
The student said the picture was not for intimidation, but he thought, after he took the selfie, “Cool. Look at that, People might even be a little scared of that, too”
Nonetheless, he said, “ I figured people would know me well enough at that point to be like ‘okay that’s just him being him.”
The student denied making any statement about taking vengeance on the class, but acknowledged that he said, “I hate my class.”
After making the disputed statement the student said that Bani-Hashimi, “looked scared that I was even talking to him because my normal get up is all black, inverted crosses, inverted cross earrings. Very intimidating. It’s a weird thing, but I like scaring people so I gave him kind of a look. He probably just heard something and then his brain went to the assumption that I like hurting people. I didn’t say anything that could be misinterpreted.”
He added that he had no desire to go to the senior event in the first place.
“I was lazy and I didn’t want to go to the senior picnic. I don’t have any friends in the senior grade so why would I go to the picnic? I don’t want to spend time with them,” he said.
The lockdown occurred the Friday before finals week and ran over into time that had been dedicated to the senior picnic which was planned to include speeches by guest speakers in the Performing Arts Center and various activities on the pumpkin patch.
The entire day’s activities and all the equipment and supplies were in place by that morning but the event never took place in the wake of the shutdown. Seniors were allowed to get food that had been prepared for the event and were then sent home. Money was lost on prepared brunch, as well as a rented bouncey house and dunk tank which were never used.
“The students were cheated out of what was a really fun afternoon with a lot of activities with a lot of bonding going on at the pumpkin patch and that’s really sad,” said Schottland. “Yeah, sure, did they get a Morucci’s sandwich? Absolutely. But what they lost out on was a last hoorah on the pumpkin patch.”
In addition to the cancellation of the senior picnic and discomfort in classrooms, Glimme, who now serves as the Director of Educational Services for the Acalanes Unified High School District, also mentioned the psychological impact of the incident. In debrief meetings, teachers expressed stress and anxiety and school counselors saw many students who were “anxious, stressed-out, and emotional.”
The more than three hour lockdown also put students through the tedium of being detained in their classrooms in largely stationary positions on the floor, a toll that also registered with Police Chief Christensen.
“You never really account for how long people are going to be inside of a classroom,” Christensen said. It’s easy for me as the police officer on the outside to say it’s two or three hours, it’s ok. I had never previously thought about what do we need to do for those students inside of the classroom so that they can be comfortable.”
One positive aspect of the day was that it gave the school and the police department an opportunity to put into practice countless hours of preparation for such an emergency.
“All the training we had done previously came to fruition because the thing got handled the way it was supposed to,” Christensen said.
According to Glimme, the administration was very impressed with the police’s response to the perceived threat.
“We felt that their response on our campus was outstanding,” Glimme said. “They came in in large numbers, they took it seriously, they were well prepared, they knew the campus. It was really well coordinated.”
As for the the school’s response, Glimme said that everyone followed procedures and communication among the staff worked very well, which was most likely as a result of the yearly lockdown drills. In Glimme’s five years at Acalanes, these practices were put into place during two lockdowns.
The event did bring to light some concern about students posting on social media during the lockdown, which augmented anxiety according to Glimme. The district is also now more aware of the importance of informing nearby schools because they received unclear information during the lockdown in June.
After debriefing meetings within Acalanes and with the district office following the lockdown, Glimme reported that the decision to go into lockdown was indeed the appropriate response.
“We determined that we did everything that we needed to do and should those same circumstances present themselves again, we would do the same thing because the perception of the threat was too big not to react,” said Glimme.
Reflecting on the event during the second interview, the student recalled his attitude in high school which he says he has since worked to refine.
“I would dress in all black, I’d have a very confident walk, I’d stare people down, I’d flip people off randomly,” the student said. “I don’t do that anymore, that’s just petty.”
He also noted the price tag of the “I AM DEATH” posting and resulting disapproval that came with the shutdown and people’s impressions of him.
“I lost a lot of friends over this. I lost my best friend. People will believe rumors before they believe me and it’s frustrating that these people I had known and had known that I wouldn’t hurt anybody now don’t want to talk to me anymore,” he said.
Although the student wore predominantly black in his high school years, often complemented by inverted cross jewelry, big boots, and dark eyeliner, he has become more cognizant of the way his behavior affects others since the incident, but cautions that people ought to have second thoughts about jumping to conclusions.
“Just because some guy wears black all the time, just because some guy isn’t what you call normal, doesn’t mean he’s dangerous. We’re all humans,” said the student.
The incident and its aftermath have also caused him to think twice.
“I really realized that everything that you do has a huge impact on your life. So I’ve been more thoughtful.” the student said. “I think about things before I do them. I’m still crazy and out there, but I don’t intentionally scare people just for the sake of having them be afraid of me.”