WINSTON-SALEM — A teacher at Simon G. Atkins High School finds a computer thumb drive a few days ago that a student had inadvertently left behind. Being a conscientious soul – and perhaps not wanting the kid to lose any important class work – the teacher pops it in to see who might have lost it.
The contents of the thumb drive are frightening.
It contains disturbing images, thoughts about massacres and information about school killings. The teacher tells school administrators. They alert the school’s resource officer, who then tells other investigators. A judge is notified and other city and school officials are brought into the loop.
But then what happens?
There’s not much they can do; the options are surprisingly limited.
Err on the side of safety
School officials took the matter extremely seriously – this is neither a joke nor a hypothetical situation – it happened just that way within the past 10 days, according to sources familiar with the case who asked not to be identified because it’s still under investigation. School and law enforcement officials judged the contents of the thumb drive to be more than just the musings of a bored teenager.
What choice did they have?
“Part of that is exaggerated,” said Steve Childers, Atkins’ principal. “I’m not at liberty to say much more than that. But we will always err on the side of the safety of the kids.”
In doing so, school officials turned to police, who decided to investigate the matter. They asked for – and got – a search warrant for the student’s home.
Two months ago, asking for a warrant for a vague threat might have been debatable. But after the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary, who would oppose such a request?
Judge William Z. Wood of Forsyth Superior Court approved the request for a search warrant and later signed an order sealing its contents.
That’s the only move; the student is still a juvenile and hasn’t been charged with a crime, the sources said.
The warrant was served, and police searched the home. What, if anything, they found is sealed up in an investigative file. Since no charges were filed, it’s reasonable to assume that nothing of immediate value as evidence was located.
Still, the matter was deemed enough of a threat that police felt it necessary to search someone’s home.
‘Hands are tied’
Law-enforcement officials cited the “ongoing investigation” exemption when asked about the situation. Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said he couldn’t comment, as did Lori Sykes, an assistant city attorney who works with the Winston-Salem Police Department.
“I would be happy to answer any general questions you may have as to applications for search warrants; however, as you know, we would not be able to comment on any particular situation aside from information which is public record under [state law],” Sykes wrote in an email.
Neither O’Neill nor Sykes would say whether asking for a search warrant related to something that happens on campus – a threat, drug or weapons violations – is a rare occurrence.
School officials cited privacy concerns and said they weren’t allowed to talk about specifics, either, when asked about options for dealing with a threat in a school.
“We can discipline a student if he violated the code of conduct,” said Allison Tomberlin, the school system’s attorney. “But he would have had to have committed some act that was substantially related to the school day.”
If there is a specific threat, then police can act.
But – and this is hypothetical – if a kid writes something in a diary at home about hating his classmates, school officials couldn’t act unless it in some way could cause a disruption on campus, Tomberlin said. Parents may or may not be notified.
“Our hands are tied in a lot of ways,” Tomberlin said.