Circuit Judge Chris France today signed a warrant for the arrest of a 16-year-old Flagler Palm Coast High School girl accused of making threats to kill one of her teachers in seemingly jocular, relentlessly bigoted racist computer messages with a fellow-student in mid-December.
The State Attorney is charging the girl with a count of written threats to kill, a felony. It’s the latest change from the charge the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office filed in December–misdemeanor assault–after initially indicating that there would be no charges. The warrant issued today follows a months-long investigation by sheriff’s detectives that included an analysis of the girl’s school-issued computer’s content, as well as that of the boy she was chatting with. Lee is black. The two students are white.
There are no hate-crime charges, though initially the sheriff’s office indicated there may have been a hate-crime enhancement to the assault charge (and the hate crime charge was submitted to the State Attorney).
The boy, also 16, is not being charged–at least not in connection with this particular incident. According to the sheriff’s office, he did not have direct knowledge of Kimberly Lee, the 48-year-old teacher at the center of the alleged threats.
The girl never denied writing the threats when interviewed by two detectives in the presence of a dean at FPC, but denied having any intentions to harm Lee, and never intended for Lee to see the messages, though she said she knew her computer and all its content could be monitored by school authorities. Lee in fact did see the messages, written in the explicitly violent and graphic language of lynchings as the students demean their victim, revel in their superiority and their semi-literate ability to “get away with murdur tonight.”
The girl described the messages as an “inappropriate joke,” according to the arrest affidavit. The boy described the messages likewise. But the messages left Lee “petrified” to the point of asking her husband to leave work immediately and buy a firearm that very day, according to the affidavit.
The students were initially suspended and faced further disciplinary action from the school, but at first the sheriff’s office found no grounds for charges. That changed when the extent of the students’ racially motivated messages were published, when the NAACP’s Flagler branch got involved (subsequently holding a demonstration critical of the sheriff and supportive of the victim on the county courthouse steps), and public pressure made inaction by the sheriff virtually impossible. The sheriff’s office insisted that the investigation remained open. The computers were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which extracted their contents, enabling a review by detectives in late April.
They also located new evidence: “In addition to the threats previously known to law enforcement, other threats were located,” the affidavit states. The threats mirror the obscenity and cavalier attitude of those already known, though the boy states that he would help the girl “hide the body.” A brief section of the affidavit, referring to Russian language (the boy in question is of Russian extraction), is redacted by the sheriff’s office, pointing either to an ongoing investigation or to self-incriminating statements.
“I made this case a top priority for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office,” Sheriff Rick Staly was quoted as saying in a release this evening. “Our investigators needed time to do an excellent job, which they did with this case. Our teachers deserve our appreciation and should never feel threatened with harm by anyone. Hatred and threats of violence have no place in our schools or our community.”
For all the vileness and stupidity of the students’ messages to each other, the state’s case relies on a gray area of law: making racist statements is not illegal, and prosecutors will have to prove an intent to harm on the girl’s part beyond the mere fact that her teacher or school authorities uncovered the alleged threats: the alleged threats were about the teacher rather than directed against her, a distinction that victims don’t necessarily see but that the law and defense lawyers do: the statute under which the girl is being charged is explicit that a threat to kill or injure is anything written “to the person to whom such letter or communication is sent.” The sheriff’s office’s initial hesitancy to pursue charges and the confusion over what charges were filed along the way may become part of the defense’s strategy, should the case go much further, as would the politically charged climate that surrounded the students’ suspension and the community’s reaction. The likelier outcome is a disposition through juvenile court.
The girl was processed through the Flagler County jail today and turned over to the Department of Juvenile Justice in Daytona Beach. The girl is a first-time offender. Typically, first-time offenders are released back to their parents to await further proceedings. The Observer reported last week that Lee returned to her teaching duties at FPC after an unpaid leave of absence.