MATTOON -- Classes at Mattoon High School were held as scheduled on Friday after a shooting threat online turned out to be a hoax allegedly perpetrated by a 14-year-old Mattoon female.
Chief Jason Taylor of the Mattoon Police Department said officers located and arrested this suspect at approximately 10:15 p.m. Thursday in Effingham following an investigation conducted by the department with the assistance of the Mattoon school district.
The 14-year-old is facing a felony charge of making a terrorist threat. The charge alleges that she used the Snapchat app to convey a threat of gun violence toward the high school. The police department reported that the threat was found to be a hoax, and that the juvenile had no intention of carrying out any violence. The department reported that she was not armed and did not have access to firearms.
Taylor said the threat on Snapchat was reported to authorities at approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday shortly after this threat was first posted. He said a team of 11 police officers and school district administrators were subsequently tasked with investigating this matter.
"We thought it was a hoax all along, but we could not take any chances," Taylor said. "Eventually, we were able to put pieces together that led us to the suspect. Computer forensics was a vital part of the investigation, along with talking with a lot of people."
Taylor said the 14-year-old, after her arrest, told police that she made the threat on Snapchat because she was "bored" and wanted to see what kind of reaction the threat would draw from police and the school district. He said the suspect appeared in court today in Coles County and was then returned to custody at the juvenile detention facility in Vermilion County until her March 8 court hearing.
School district Superintendent Larry Lilly said he and Dave Skocy, assistant superintendent for human resources, worked with police on this matter from 4:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday.
"They were able to take a very difficult situation and work through it and bring it to resolution before the night's end," Lilly said of the police.
Lilly said the high school was able to hold its regularly scheduled classes on Friday. The superintendent said a few families opted to have their students stay home for the day due to the threat and he added that these were excused absences. Lilly said volunteers from among clergy in Mattoon were on hand in case students needed additional counseling and support.
The high school cafeteria was the scene of a Sept. 20 shooting in which one student was shot and wounded. Officials have reported that the alleged shooter, also a student, was subdued by a teacher and then disarmed and arrested by the school resource officer.
Mattoon resident Sherri Feast said she let her younger son stay home from Mattoon Middle School on Friday due to concerns about the threat. She said her older son transferred from the high school to a private school in December due to his lingering anxiety from the Sept. 20 shooting. She said her son was near the cafeteria that day, heard the gunshots, and saw the stampede of his classmates running out of the building.
Feast said she is pleased with how quickly the police department made an arrest and has mixed feelings about possible punishments for the suspect. She said the girl, at 14, is too young and immature to "throw the book" at her, but needs to be shown that such threats are not funny. Feast said she would like to see the school district send out text alerts about such threats like those for weather-related cancellations.
Mattoon resident Britteney Derixson said that until the threat was confirmed to be a hoax, she considered having her daughter stay home from the middle school and her niece stay home from the high school. She noted that her niece had just left the cafeteria before the Sept. 20 shooting occurred.
Derixson said she and her family worry everyday about the threat of school shootings. Derixson said she would like to see the school district step up efforts to counsel student and prevent bullying, and install metal detectors at schools. She said metal detectors would be costly, but would help keep students safe.
"People should be able to send their kids to school and not have to worry about them not coming home," Derixson said.
Mattoon resident Becky Vanneste said she has one child at the high school and two at the middle school, and they all went to school by their choice on Friday. Vanneste said she is part of an group of 10-15 parents who have been meeting with district officials to talk about ways to help enhance safety at the high school, such as installing easily secured interior doors within the school.
Vanneste said this community group, which sprung from the Mattoon Strong movement that formed after the Sept. 20 shooting, also wants to help recruit more parents to volunteer at the high school, including by chaperoning dances and staffing sporting events.
"We are there to be supportive. We are there to help those who are educating and protecting our kids," Vanneste said. Those interested in joining this group can contact Vanneste at https://www.facebook.com/rebecca.stare.
Superintendent Lilly said the school district is continuing to look at ways to enhance its crisis response training. Lilly said the district, in recent weeks, has worked with the Mattoon Police Department to establish a second school resource officer position and has worked with Total Home & Farm Video Solutions of Mattoon to install approximately 70 security cameras at the high school.