By Arielle Dollinger
Less than 24 hours after police made a computer trespass arrest as a result of the ongoing investigation into three anonymous threatening messages targeting Half Hollow Hills High School East, the school district informed parents via email that it had received a fourth threat.
The threat was received by the district at 7:46 p.m. on Tuesday, according to an email sent to parents at 10:05 p.m. the same night. It is the fourth to target High School East since November.
When asked for comment on Wednesday, Superintendent Kelly Fallon said that there was “no additional information to report.”
At the district’s Dec. 15 board of education meeting, Suffolk Police Deputy Inspector William Read announced that police had arrested a Hills East student on a charge of computer trespass as a result of the investigation into the threats.
The 16-year-old student has not been charged in relation to the threat, Read said; the arrest followed the execution of a search warrant on the student, and police have yet to determine whether or not that individual sent messages that threatened the school in November and December.
Meanwhile, according to Hills Board of Education President Eric Geringswald, the student has been suspended for the remainder of the school year.
“We have put in a lot of work into this case, we've put in a lot of security efforts; we are focusing an awful lot of investigative time to resolve this, so in that regard, I think you can feel very comfortable with what is being done,” Read said. “The threat is about a month old... nothing’s happened. Please draw your own conclusion there.”
On Nov. 6, the school district and the Suffolk County Police Department each received threatening emails from an anonymous sender; both threats targeted High School East.
On Dec. 3, the district received another threatening message and sent students home at 9:30 a.m. Police said that day that they found “nothing suspicious” after searching the school.
The “computer trespass” offense, Read said Monday night, refers to the action of accessing the computer of another person or entity without authorization. Read said that he could not elaborate on the specifics of this particular situation and that he could not address the evidence that led police to the search warrant on the student.
The charge is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, Read said. The threat itself, he said, is “a higher level of crime.” If evidence surfaces that the student is directly linked to the threat, that would mean upgraded charges.
Read said he could not comment on whether the threatening messages on Nov. 6 and Dec. 3 were sent by the same person, nor could he comment on whether or not police believe the sender acted alone. He did, however, confirm that all three threatening messages are part of the same investigation.
When asked if he could be more specific about what it meant that the individual arrested accessed the computer of another person, Read turned to Hills Superintendent Kelly Fallon. Fallon shook her head and said that she did not think the district could talk about that at the moment.
Some district parents are concerned for their children’s safety, on edge as the investigation continues and the sender of the threatening emails remains anonymous. Parent Kesha Woodard was “terrified,” she said, when she received a phone call from her son while he was at school on Monday, worrying – needlessly, it turned out – that he was calling with bad news.
“I'm terrified that he's calling me from school again today to tell me that there was another threat up at the school, because that's the only time he would contact me during school hours,” she said.
Read referred to the threatening messages as a “simple threat” – a term, he explained, that he used to convey the idea that the threat did not result in action.
“I was basically saying, perhaps implying or perhaps being vague, that beyond the threat itself, there was no further action,” Read clarified.
Read and district administrators also addressed the possibility of “copycat” threats.
“Right now, everybody can draw somewhat of a conclusion on your own – the threat's made a month ago, nothing's happened,” Read said Monday. “If this is a harassment threat or a disruption threat, I myself and our staff would not at all be surprised if there's a follow-up threat soon. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did.”
Fallon and Geringswald said following Monday night's school board meeting that the district wants to “move on.”
“We're happy that the police have been able to get their investigation to the point where there is an arrest, and hopefully that allows everyone involved in the process to move on,” Geringswald said.
The investigation is ongoing, Read stressed. A police officer had already been assigned “to maintain a presence” at Hills East, he noted, and will remain there for the time being.