Florida judge draws town’s wrath over school violence case
MACCLENNY, Fla. (AP) — Anxieties multiplied quickly across Baker County, a mostly rural community of 28,000 in northern Florida, when news spread that a 15-year-old had planned a massacre at the county’s only high school.
“MAKE SURE THE TEACHERS ARE DEAD,” he ranted in a notebook. “Then rinse repeat.”
When the sophomore shared his six-page “School Shooting Plan” with a classmate in early September, it set in motion what authorities called a textbook response to averting another Parkland school shooting, which took the lives of 14 students and three school staffers last year.
Within minutes, the student was in custody. By most accounts, parents felt reassured by the swift action of school officials and law enforcement.
But unease resurfaced last month when a judge dismissed second-degree felony charges against the boy and released him back into the community west of Jacksonville. Thursday’s shooting at a California high school — which left three students dead, including the 16-year-old gunman — only deepened their worries.
In a place where churches outnumber gas stations and traffic lights, some residents expressed compassion for the teenager but reserved less mercy for the judge, who they say failed their community and the boy she spared.
“We have a sense of safety built into this community. We trust each other, and when I drop my kids off at school, I have a feeling they’re going to be safe,” said Macclenny resident Tracy Lamb, whose 15-year-old daughter attends the high school along with about 1,400 other students.
“Our judicial system is dropping the ball. It’s failed us, and the system has failed him. I want this child to receive help,” she said. “Everybody’s left wondering now about what’s going to happen to this particular kid.”
After the Parkland shooting that killed 17, Florida lawmakers acted quickly to beef up security and improve safety across the state’s 4,300 public schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act widened the authority of schools and law enforcement to act against any threat to campus safety.
To authorities and school officials, one provision in the law seemed clear: Anyone who “makes, posts, or transmits” a threat of mass shooting “in any manner that would allow another person to view the threat” has committed a crime.
Judge Gloria R. Walker saw things differently and dismissed the case because she said prosecutors could not prove the threat had been transmitted as described in the law.
Walker didn’t return calls requesting comment.
Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission expressed exasperation last month when Baker County Sheriff’s Maj. Randy Crews described the incident.
That was the first time many in the county heard of the judge’s decision, and it spawned immediate outrage. Community leaders urged neighbors to bombard the judge with emails and phone calls to voice their displeasure.
“We count on the laws to keep us safe. Are there laws to do that? We thought so, and then recently we had a judge who said that the law wasn’t good enough to keep us safe, or to get this child some help,” said Angela Callahan, a middle school teacher, union officer and mother with a son attending Baker County High School.
The boy’s plan described killing teachers and fellow students in chilling detail. To maximize the carnage, he’d deploy an arsenal of knives and guns at a pep rally or some other high-traffic venue. He calculated he’d have nine minutes before squad cars and medics could reach the scene. He wouldn’t be acting alone, he hoped, having recruited at least three schoolmates who, like him, were “100% down that they might die that day.”
Investigators said the teen acknowledged writing the plan but he denied any intention of carrying it out.
The Associated Press is not naming the student because he is a juvenile.
Florida law allows authorities to hold anyone deemed a threat to themselves and others for up to 72 hours. From July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, authorities took temporary custody of 36,078 children under the Baker Act — up by 83% from a decade earlier. Many of those cases were initiated while a child was at school.
The Stoneman Douglas commission has called for greater state funding for mental health programs for children and wants judges to offer mental health services to children who get into trouble with the law.
That’s what folks across Baker County say should have happened when the 15-year-old appeared before Judge Walker.
The Rev. Tommy Richardson, who serves as the chaplain for the sheriff’s department, said his community is a place of forgiveness.
“I don’t think none of the community ever expected him to get life in prison,” Richardson said. “We’re a community that will help him, pray for him.”
Baker County Schools Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson declined to discuss the case but reassured residents that protocols are in place to keep students safe.
Still, concerns linger.
Courtney Fiser, whose daughter attends the high school, said she is relieved the boy hasn’t returned to school but remains troubled by the judge’s decision.
“We work so hard to protect our children, and we have someone who is not there helping us,” she said.
Daughter Lauren, a cheerleader, described the unease on campus.
When the school intercom blared a code yellow a few weeks ago, nerves remained frayed until school officials declared it a false alarm.
“Every time the doorknob makes a noise, we’re scared,” she said. “Now, It’s just an ongoing fear.”