Last Updated: 1:36 p.m.
Two 16-year-old students who exchanged a string of online, racist threats about their language arts teacher during class on Monday face misdemeanor assault charges with a possible enhancement under Florida’s hate-crime law.
Their teacher, Kimberley Lee, decided to pursue the charges on Tuesday after she told Flagler County Sheriff’s detectives that she thought the students were capable of harming her, and had a well-founded fear that they would after she read what they’d written.
Lee is black. The two students are white. The two students’ chats were conducted in a joking manner, the students told investigators, but the “jokes” referred to their teacher in the most derogatory, racially inflammatory terms, planning her murder and reveling in the claim that it wouldn’t really be murder because they’d be doing “an amazing thing,” that they’d get “a medal” for killing a black person, and that “n— don’t have rights.” (See the fuller, uncensored exchange here, and the complete transcript of their chat here.)
Lee said she was “petrified” by the substance of the two students’ chat about her, once she was able to read the transcript, to the point of having her husband leave work immediately. The couple then bought a gun, worried about their safety, and “she expressed a concern about returning to school,” according to her account in the two students’ arrest report. She said that one of the students was “absolutely” capable of harming her.
At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, around the time the two students had “jokingly” set to murder her, Lee woke up in fear that the students would actually show up at her property.
The Sheriff’s Office today released the fuller transcript of the two students’ chat, conducted between one student who was in Lee’s class and the other who was in a different class. It is significantly more extensive than the excerpts previously disclosed, the violent racism and relentlessly bigoted humor laced in language reminiscent of the casual dehumanization of blacks at lynchings. The students maintained that they were only joking.
“Of course the students said they were joking, but in this time in our country we don’t joke about these things, at school or anywhere else,” Steve Brandt, Chief of Investigative Services, said this morning.
The sheriff’s office investigated the case when the exchange was first uncovered Monday and concluded that it would file charges. But publication of the exchange triggered further reactions, including disbelief from Flagler County NAACP Branch President Linda Sharpe-Matthews that the matter would be dropped without criminal charges.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday morning, Brandt said the difference between the Sheriff’s Office’s reaction Monday, when it concluded that there would be no charges “at this time,” as opposed to today, was the teacher’s decision to pursue charges. “Upon investigating it initially with the school resource deputy,” he said, “the action did not fit the statutory requirement of a felony at that time. Tuesday the detectives were following up on the case, they interviewed the victim,” following which simple assault charges were filed, “with an enhancement for a race crime because of the racially motivated context of the messages.”
Monday’s incident report specifies that two detectives were involved and interviewed both students that day.
Brandt flatly rejected Matthews’s claim that the sheriff’s office had been slow to move toward charges because the students involved are white. Matthews had said the day before that had the two students been black, they would have been walked out of the school in handcuff in the same circumstances. “That has absolutely no bearing,” Brandt said, on how the investigation was conducted.
“Just so you understand, too,” Brandt continued, “reading the text messages and the detectives and the school resource deputy involved, deputies involved, it bothers them, because it’s disgusting, you know, but we have to follow the law, so that’s what we do.”
The students themselves have been removed from campus and are not expected back, as the school is recommending that they be expelled and placed in a home-based instructional program for the rest of the year. The school is also recommending against taking back the students come next year. Brandt today said he was unaware of the students’ parents involvement in the case, or of their reaction. Brandt said the students don’t appear to have a history of disciplinary issues at school.
The Sheriff’s Office announced the charges this morning. The charges have been forwarded to the State Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether to formally file them. “Based on the completed investigation, [sheriff’s] detectives determined that the two students made intentional and unlawful threats to harm Mrs. Lee and in doing so created a well-founded fear that such violence was possible,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a release. “Charges were forwarded to the 7th Circuit State Attorney’s Office on Wednesday morning for the charge of Assault with an enhancement as a Hate Crime under Florida law for both students.”
“More serious felony charges were explored but the facts of this case did not meet the required elements for a felony charge,” said Chief Steve Brandt, Chief of Investigative Services. “Because this is a misdemeanor and is not an immediate arrest exception under Florida law, a physical arrest cannot be made so our only option was to file recommended charges with the State Attorney’s Office.” Brandt was holding a press conference about the case in late morning.
“I was appalled at the language these students were using and the threats made toward this teacher,” Sheriff Rick Staly was quoted as saying in the release. “These racial tones have no place in our community. The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office has a zero tolerance policy on school threats. All threats will be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated and appropriate charges will be made, but often these situations take time to investigate and review the evidence before determining a charge or making an arrest. It is not acceptable to claim you were ‘joking around’ when caught or to threaten anyone.”