A war of words between members of conflicting social groups at Houma Junior High School escalated last week to threats of violence, resulting arrests, and seizure of letters and notes that included what law enforcement officials called "Satanic material."
No weapons were recovered or involved, authorities said, and no danger to students or staff exists at the school. Three youths – all around the age of 15 – were taken into custody and sent to the Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center Thursday night and Friday morning during the course of an intensive investigation.
The incident is the latest in a string of reports of threatened violence at local schools in the wake of a March 5 Santee, Calif., incident that has galvanized public attention and parental fears. In that case, a 15-year-old freshman at Santana High School is accused of killing two students and wounding 13 others with a .22 caliber revolver.
Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. said Saturday that any danger to Houma Junior High students or anyone else was vanquished with the arrests and that he expects the school to operate normally when classes resume Monday.
"As soon as we got a call from the parents, we got in there quickly and we shut everything down," Waitz said, adding that he and other officials are taking the threats "very seriously."
Accounts given by law enforcement and school authorities indicate that one youngster was the apparent catalyst, and had attracted attention from other students because of his apparent fascination with symbols including Swastikas and others linked to either Satanism or witchcraft.
The youth, according to one account, issued threats against black students and also against "preps" – campus slang for youngsters involved in school activities, essentially the majority of the student body.
Students who considered themselves "preps" were said to have confronted the youth, at which point he said he would shoot them – though he was not armed. Others who were friends of the youth – an enclave of about 30 youngsters dubbed "geeks" – were said to have made additional threatening statements.
School officials and a resource officer on campus began to investigate as early as Wednesday, with law enforcement taking a major role Thursday, interviewing and arresting at least one student. School officials and police found a note described as a "death threat."
Sheriff Jerry Larpenter said the girlfriend of the youth initially involved in the dispute said that if he did not carry through with a threat to stab one student, she would "pull the trigger."
During interviews in the school library Friday, at least 30 students were questioned about the groups involved and the threats. Most told investigators they had heard rumors, or second and third hand talk. But some gave specific information.
Asked if he thought any of the youths arrested had the means to carry out their threats, Waitz replied in the affirmative.
"Being 15-year-old kids, I certainly think they do have the means," Waitz said. "Did we find a gun in their possession? No. But given the letters, the notes and the documentation – we probably confiscated 15 pages of documentation indicating there was going to be a problem – it’s bad." Reference to a site on the World Wide Web was also contained in the documents, but investigators have not yet determined its relevance.
All three are charged with making terroristic threats and juvenile delinquency, and are expected to appear before a judge Monday. They have not been publicly identified because they are under the age of 17.
School authorities said the standard practice in such cases is for the students to be expelled. The students are then afforded due process at an expulsion hearing.
Principal Tom Soudelier said he would rather be safe than sorry, especially in the current climate of fear.
"Anytime we find a situation that we think can potentially put any child in harm’s way we will act to the fullest extent of our abilities," Soudelier said. "If it means I have to expel one child to make certain others are not harmed, it will happen. One of the most difficult things for a school administrator to do is weigh the situation, but because of the climate we have no choice but to err on the side of caution. For us, as a system, we fortunately have a due process policy."
Waitz commended Soudelier and the school staff for their cooperation during the investigation. The lessons learned from tragedies in other parts of the nation, Waitz said, make an easy case for swift action in such cases.
"When they start looking into those cases they will say ‘this one said this or this one said that,’" Waitz said. "And they say if they had acted quickly enough they could have prevented it."