By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
Violent threats made against two local schools were resolved quickly and without incident or injury last week, thanks to the actions of parents, school officials and law enforcement professionals.
The incident began in the late hours of Aug. 7, when an anonymous social media user posted threats of “clown violence” against Countryside Elementary School, 15034 N. Parkview Place, and Valley Vista High School, 15550 N. Parkview Place.
Posts to Instagram included images of clowns, along with one threat obvious and another perhaps less so.
The first included a clown photo tagged to the high school’s location and reading: “Coming to kill people at Valley Vista,” along with three knife emoji symbols.
The second threat featured an image of clown sitting on a swing set clasping balloons and speaking the phrase “Not really a clown” in Spanish – a likely reference to Pennywise, the eponymous evil depicted in Stephen King’s horror novel “It,” which was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1990 and a major motion picture in 2017.
Though invoking clowns, such threats – like the novel and its depictions – are no laughing matter.
A spate of clown-related threats and sightings of ominous figures dressed in “killer clown” costumes terrorized communities across the U.S. and Canada, as well as other more than a dozen other countries, starting in August 2016.
Closer to home, similar incidents were reported at schools across the Valley, including in Peoria, Tolleson, Glendale, Phoenix and Mesa during 2016 as well.
Last week’s threat was first reported by concerned parents shortly before midnight Aug. 7 – by the time classes started the following morning, the alleged culprit had been identified and was taken into custody.
As soon as police officials learned of the threat, they acted immediately, which is standard procedure according to Surprise Police Department Chief Terry Young.
“Your Surprise Police Department takes any and all threats of violence seriously,” stated Mr. Young “Once we are made aware of a threat we will investigate thoroughly and take all appropriate actions to ensure the safety of our community.”
Local lawmen reached out to the FBI in the early hours of Aug. 8 and, with the aid of the agency’s Threat Mitigation Unit, identified the IP address used to publish the threatening Instagram posts, as well as the name of the person associated with the address.
Cross referencing the name through the school district’s database, Surprise detectives were able to identify that person as the parent of a student registered at one of the threatened schools and then went to their home.
Though he initially denied any involvement, when confronted with seemingly damning evidence on his mobile device – which detectives briefly searched with the parent’s permission – the young suspect stated he did it because he’d been bullied at school.
However, after being arrested and booked into custody at the Surprise PD’s Juvenile Booking Center, the suspect changed his story again.
The police report reads: “During my interview with [the suspect] he stated he wasn’t being bullied in school, rather he created the Instagram account out of boredom … the suspect states he’s never done anything like this in the past, or on any other social media platform.”
The device used the make the account was seized as evidence and the suspect was subsequently transported and booked into the Durango Juvenile Facility in Phoenix.
The suspect’s parents told investigators no guns were owned or kept in the home.
Meanwhile, school officials were quick to inform parents about the threat.
More than 35 minutes before the start of classes, Countryside Principal Marci Hessler warned her students’ parents by email.
“Overnight, we had multiple families contact us and law enforcement regarding a social media account on Instagram that included threatening statements,” Ms. Hessler stated. “We take every threat to our campus seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the account, and it’s claims of clown violence, we contacted law enforcement to investigate.”
The warning also went out by text and robocall, and on the school district’s website.
Even as the incident seemed headed for a quick resolution, police officials remained vigilant throughout the morning, according to Dysart Unified School District spokesman Zachery Fountain.
“We take every threat to our campus seriously. As soon as we were made aware of the account, and it’s claims of clown violence, we contacted law enforcement to investigate,” stated Mr. Fountain. “Incidents like this in the past have not been credible, but we contacted Surprise Police Department who are currently investigating. As a precaution, there will be additional law enforcement in the area.”
By the afternoon, additional notifications went out to parents informing them of the arrest.
“The individual responsible for creating the account is in police custody and awaiting charges. We do not have any threats to the school at this time,” Ms. Hessler stated. “We are grateful to the Surprise Police Department for investigating this issue.”
The principal closed her email with a request for parents to discuss the incident at home.
“We ask that you take a moment and remind your children that making threats online is never a joke. The consequences can have a lifelong impact on the individuals involved,” Ms. Hessler stated.
Mr. Fountain praised the efforts of law enforcement officials in resolving the case.
“We are grateful for our partnership with law enforcement and their work to help us keep our campuses safe,” Mr. Fountain stated.
District 5 City Councilman Skip Hall echoed the praise.
“I am extremely grateful for the excellent communication and coordination between our Police Department and the Dysart Unified School District,” Mr. Hall stated.