Jeff Jardine

Death-threat text to Hughson student deserves strong message in return

A 13-year-old student at Emilie J. Ross Middle School in Hughson, Calif., seen Friday afternoon, Aug. 19, 2016, received a death threat in a cellphone message. Authorities are investigating to find out who sent it.
A 13-year-old student at Emilie J. Ross Middle School in Hughson, Calif., seen Friday afternoon, Aug. 19, 2016, received a death threat in a cellphone message. Authorities are investigating to find out who sent it.

The message popped up on her cellphone screen Wednesday afternoon, telling the 13-year-old to “wachout” and that “Tomorrow at Emily j Ross middle school you die …”

Disturbing? Of course. What child wouldn’t be bothered by a death threat, presumably from a schoolmate? What parents wouldn’t be upset that their child received such a threat?

So the hunt is on in Hughson for this sniveling little coward and lousy speller (“wachout” for one, misspelling the school’s namesake Emilie when its right there on the campus message board, for another). And perhaps careless, too, since the text included the sender’s cellphone number. The victim’s mom, Christina Fondse, posted a screen snap of the text on Facebook, asking friends if they recognized the number, but since has taken it down. It generated hundreds of views and shares, but no one has outed the perpetrator. The information also went to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department’s Hughson Police Services, which is investigating.

Social media and cellular phones provide platforms for this kind of bullying. As The Bee’s Nan Austin reported in 2015, 1 in 5 tweens and teens reported being the victims of some sort of bullying at school, and the Valley certainly is not exempt.

Earlier that same year, bullies used social media to attack Breanna Mendoza, then an eighth-grader at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock, to the point where she considered suicide. She has a facial deformity and was bullied so badly her parents took her out of school and then took the issue public. She transferred to Turlock Christian School.

Last spring, a pair of 16-year-old Central Catholic High School students were arrested in connection with a racially charged death-threat video they sent to a classmate through social media.

“Social media has replaced personal accountability, common decency and respect for others with defiance for authority and disrespectful behavior,” Sheriff Adam Christianson said.

Was this week’s death threat in Hughson credible? Hughson police aren’t ready to go there just yet, police Chief Larry Seymour said.

“It lacked detail. There was nothing to specify how,” he said. “It was just at the school.”

Numerous commenters to the department’s Facebook page disagree, some vehemently.

“It’s a death threat,” one wrote. “How is that not credible? Until then how are we supposed to feel our children are safe at school?”

That the threat went specifically to Fondse’s daughter and not to the entire school doesn’t ease the other parents’ frustration, or Fondse’s.

“We are a family in Hughson,” she told me. “I am in my 15th year of teaching here. I’ve had hundreds of the community’s children in my class. I would fight for their children just like I’m fighting for my daughter.”

Seymour said his investigators will continue to try to find out who sent the message by searching cell tower records for the number and trying to nail down the proximity. They’ll continue to interview students and faculty members, hoping for clues that will lead them to the sender.

When they’ve done that, they will forward the information to the school district, where Ross Middle School Principal Ryan Smith said he is working with the parents – one of whom teaches in the district – to assure them the school will take action from within the Education Code. The parents, he said, plan to press charges when the culprit is found. School officials, he said, will do some gumshoe detective work, as well.

“We’ll cross-reference the phone numbers of (students) who missed school – who didn’t come to school because ‘they might figure out it’s me,’ ” Smith said.

Or perhaps someone who knows something will come forward with the information.

“They are supportive and on top of this,” Fondse said. “They need the name from law enforcement.”

All that stated, to this point the cyberbullying message has had the desired effects: Fondse’s daughter won’t return to school, her mom says, until the bully is identified and dealt with by authorities. They are angry and fearful, worried about their daughter’s safety and peace of mind.

Thus, the cyberbully has intimidated through the threats, which indeed might not be credible but the impact of which is real. And that is why they need to catch the sender and deal with him or her accordingly. The laws are intended to protect those who obey them and prosecute those who don’t.

“We back the badge,” Principal Smith told me. “At the same time, I’ve told the faculty and staff to be visual and vigilant.”

It’s frustrating to Smith, whose school provides Chromebook notebook computers to all of the students, emphasizing the rules and accountability of using the technology.

“I’ve told them you shouldn’t send anything you wouldn’t shout from the rooftops for everyone to hear,” he said.

In this case, a text that was a death threat to a 13-year-old girl.

Justice would be for authorities to find the person who sent them and deliver a different type of message.