What should be done with a 13-year-old boy who takes a cattle prod to school, uses it to threaten another student, says he's going to kill two schoolmates and the principal, threatens to blow up the school with explosives, claims to have killed 63 people, and keeps a list of those he says he intends to kill?
If he's a child with no medical disorders, the answer -- in the dark shadow of the Columbine High School tragedy -- would be suspension, probable expulsion, and perhaps criminal charges, Herb Weissenfels, Payson School District superintendent, said.
But the teen who allegedly made those threats has a recognized disorder under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and that changes things.
He was suspended Dec. 8, but he's now back in attendance at Rim Country Middle School -- the very institution the eighth-grader threatened to destroy, among the very students whose lives he threatened to end.
Weissenfels is forbidden by the Federal Educational Rights of Privacy Act to discuss the case, the student and whatever official determinations were made to allow the boy's return to school. But he does say, "There are special categories which put heavy limitations on us, and do not allow us to do things that maybe we want to do. Some principals really blew up when it was found their hands were going to be tied."
This case falls into a special category because the boy in question, Alex, which is not his real name, has been diagnosed with severe Attention Deficit Disorder. A.D.D. is a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Furthermore, Alex's father told the Roundup that during the week the incident occurred, the boy's usual medication, Welbutrin, had been altered to also include Dexedrine, an additive intended to help increase the boy's ability to concentrate at school.
Welbutrin is a "downer" drug that slows down the central nervous system and produces a calming effect, Scottsdale pharmacist Jim Thebado said. Dexedrine, on the other hand, is an upper that speeds up the nervous system and "can make a kid turn meaner than hell," he said. "It's a harsh drug, but it is still being used."
In any case, the combination of Welbutrin and Dexedrine helps a large percentage of A.D.D. people increase their ability to concentrate, Alex's father said. "But in a small percentage, it creates a bad side effect, which is hallucinating. You don't know it until something happens, which it did.
"We've proven to the school that this (drug reaction) occurred, and that (Alex) is now back to his original prescription -- and back to his normal, hard-to-get-along-with self.
"He's a typical ADD child," the boy's father said. "But at least he's no longer hallucinating and living out these fantasies."
"I'm very sorry to hear the child has A.D.D.," said the father of one of the boys Alex allegedly threatened. "But that sure doesn't mean he's not capable of showing up at school with a gun and shooting people."
Threats and weapons
"The normal policy against weapons is no-tolerance," Weissenfels said. "If a student brings something to the school that could be construed as a weapon, it's an immediate suspension. Then there's a determination that could go through the school board and could ultimately result in an expulsion. There could also be criminal charges, because we always refer such cases to the police."
And this case was no exception.
According to a report filed by Payson Police Officer David Blalock, two students who said they were threatened by Alex were interviewed Dec. 8 in a middle school conference room by Blalock, Principal Frank Larby, Assistant Principal Bill Bowling, and Mike Wheelis, director of personnel for the Payson Unified School District.
During the course of that interview, the students claimed that Alex had told them:
• He was a government agent who had killed up to 63 people for pay;
• He would kill them and Principal Larby because the government had told him to, and that he could also arrange to have one of the interviewed student's entire family killed;
• He possessed a "mini-computer" containing lists of those he had killed and those he needed to kill, as well as "numerous guns and all types of ammunition and explosives to blow up the school and do all kinds of destruction";
• He had brought a cattle prod to school and threatened to "stick" one of the two students with it;
- He once approached a student, raised his hand up, pointed it in the shape of a pistol, and with his other hand pantomimed cocking the imaginary weapon.
Fantasy meets reality
Blalock, who serves as the school's resource officer, wrote in his report that Alex admitted saying he had killed 63 people, but that "all those things were made up."
The boy said he had "an active imagination and would never hurt anybody or do anything to school property, or anyone else's property, for that matter."
He denied making any threats about "killing anybody or doing any bodily harm to any person, whatsoever," and said he had always "made things up to try to get people to like him ..."
When Alex's parents arrived at the school, his father explained the boy's behavior by saying "he had been watching '007' all week on TV," and added that he did not believe Alex "would actually do anything to anyone."
Eventually, Alex admitted that he had taken the cattle prod to school, but "did not take it out and try to do anything to anybody with it."
Tools of intimidation
Alex's father later turned the cattle prod over to Blalock, who described it as being 12 inches long, silver-colored with a red handle and rawhide strap. The father said the device was inoperable, contained no batteries, and that he had owned it for several years to work cattle at rodeos.
Other evidence collected during the interview included an electronic dictionary and thesaurus, and one Tool Logic multipurpose tool -- a credit-card shaped Swiss Army device containing a serrated, two- to three-inch knife blade, tooth pick, screw driver, compass and magnifying glass.
Alex was charged with two counts of threatening or intimidating for the threats he made against the other two students. The Gila County Attorney's office will decide whether to prosecute.
Trying to fit in
"We weren't best friends, but he was a friend," one of the boys who was threatened said Thursday. "He was kind of weird sometimes. Like, he said he had a bunch of different illnesses. He said he had A.D.D. and that's why the government was interested in him.
"He was always talking about how he'd killed 63 people ... He said he shot some here (between the eyes), in the back of the head, in the heart ... He said he gets paid $3,000 to kill people who are unimportant to society, and $6,000 for people important to society."
The boy said that Alex had once opened his backpack to show him the cattle prod, but did not remove it. He said that on another occasion, Alex removed the multipurpose tool from his wallet and "pulled the blade all the way out."
The threats were made, he said, after another middle school student threw Alex to the ground and began teasing him.
"(Alex) said we know too much about his work. He turned on this little (electronic) pocket dictionary he had and showed us the words, 'People to kill: Frank Larby and (the two boys' names).' Then he said, 'I'm gonna kill you. Do you want me to kill you? I can have it arranged.'
"The first time he said it, I sort of shook it off. But when he kept saying it, it started to seem kind of serious."
Alex, the threatened boy said, was himself a victim of "the worst school cliques I've ever seen. And I've been to many schools.
"There's jocks, the geeks, and the g.g.'s, or the goody-goodies." Alex, he said, is not only a "geek," but the one most likely to be picked on or teased by the jocks.
"I don't know why. (Alex) really wanted to fit in with the jocks. He'd do anything they said. If they told him to flip a teacher off, he'd do it because he wanted to feel accepted."
A parent's right to know
"The threats against my son's life were bad enough," said the threatened boy's father. "But the way the school has handled it has only made the situation worse.
"First, they interrogated (my son) for over 2 1/2 hours without contacting us until it was all completely done. Second, all along they've been evasive about telling us about what they were going to do. The first call we got from the school was yesterday (Jan. 12), when Larby told me (Alex) was back in school, and that they'd put procedures in place to keep him away from (my son). But he wouldn't say what those procedures were."
Attempting to find that answer, the threatened boy's father has contacted the offices of Governor Jane Hull, Congressman J.D. Hayworth, Senator Jack Brown, Senator John McCain, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan. In return, he's been referred to dozens of other places to call. "Nobody has been able to tell me anything," he said.
"I'm not a psychologist ... but common sense tells me that, when you're 13 years old and making up these kinds of stories, it's a little beyond the norm.
"We should have some right to know what has been determined about this child. But they keep saying they can't give us any information. Does he have to kill someone first before we're told anything?"
Rather than taking a chance, the boy's father said he may take his son out of school.
"(My wife and I) discussed that today. But isn't it the State of Arizona's responsibility to ensure that the school is safe? And why (does my son) have to suffer and maybe not finish out the school year because of all this?"
"The hard thing is that we have to work within the guidelines of the FERPA laws," RCMS Principal Frank Larby said. "What that means is that, if it's your child, you're entitled to any information we have. If it's not your child, all we can talk about is information that is public record.
"In this case, yes, there are (determinations and actions) in process, but I can't just call (the threatened boys' parents) and give them the details.
"(Assistant Principal) Bowling headed up the investigation... and I know he would want a complete picture of what's going on before calling a parent and causing potential alarm," Larby said.
The letter of the law
"Personally, as a parent and a grandparent, I agree with the victim's parents," Weissenfels said. "But in special education due process, which this situation requires, an MDR -- a team of psychologists, etcetera -- has to meet and determine whether any particular behavior is related to a child's disability.
"If it is related, we do not have the option of removing the child from school. That's the law. It's not one that's always comfortable, but it's the law."
In lieu of removing Alex, "Precautions have been taken to prevent (Alex and the threatened boys from) coming into contact with each other," Weissenfels said. "The way it's set up, in fact, that would extend to any other student, to prevent any kind of altercations on any level. We really went to the very maximum of what we were allowed to do."
According to teachers at the school, Alex must be kept under constant supervision by at least one RCMS teacher, and he will no longer be allowed to interact with other students outside the classroom.
'My son wouldn't harm a fly'
Alex's father, a Gila County Sheriff's Deputy, said he's sympathetic to the victim's families.
"If it weren't for the Victim's Rights Bill, we would have contacted the victims' parents to apologize and guarantee them that their kids are in absolutely no danger," Alex's father said. "My son wouldn't harm a fly. Sometimes he gets off in play world and forgets where he is. But there's absolutely no danger to those kids."
Asked if he does indeed keep weapons and ammunition in his home, as Alex had boasted, the boy's father said, "I'm a police officer, so yes I do. But they're in a gun vault, and I'm the only one who has the combination key to it."
After his interview with school officials, "we talked about the present school problems across the United States, and how threats like this can be misconstrued," Alex's father said. "At that point, he didn't even understand the seriousness of what he'd done."
"This situation is really rough on everybody," the father of the threatened boy said. "I'm not trying to ruin (Alex's) life. If I could help the kid, I'd love to. All I want to know is, do children with disabilities have more rights than those who don't?"
What is attention deficit disorder?
In the most current guidelines published by the American Psychiatric Association, Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.)
is said to be caused by a neurological dysfunction within the brain which can be either inherited or acquired.
It has several types, including predominantly attentive, predominantly impulsive, or a combination of the two.
Individuals with A.D.D. usually have many but not all of the following symptoms,
• Inattention. Often fails to finish what he starts; doesn't seem to listen; is easily distracted; has difficulty concentrating or paying attention; doesn't stick with a play activity.
• Impulsivity. Often acts without thinking and later feels sorry; shifts excessively from one activity to another; has difficulty organizing work; needs a lot of supervision; doesn't wait to take turns in games or groups.
• Hyperactivity. Runs about or climbs on things excessively; can't sit still and is fidgety; has difficulty staying in his seat and bothers classmates; excessive activity during sleep; always on the "go" and acts as if "driven."
• Emotional instability. Angry outbursts; social loner; blames others for problems; fights with others quickly; very sensitive to criticism.
True A.D.D. patients usually start showing symptoms by the time they start school. Some very impulsive children are diagnosed as early as two or three years old. Others appear to develop more sever symptoms around the fourth grade. These children may have always had A.D.D. but were able to compensate for the condition. As school requires more work and organization skills, these children may reach a point where they become unable to compensate and exhibit "full-blown" A.D.D. symptoms.
Some children may remain undiagnosed until they are in their teens. More recently adults have been diagnosed as having A.D.D. These individuals had the disorder as children but were not properly identified during childhood.
What rights do parents have?
Q: In hindsight, looking back at this situation, will anything change regarding dissemination of information to parents should something like this happen again?
Payson School District superintendent Herb Weissenfels: If there's ever a threatening-type situation involving the school or the student population as a whole, we would notify parents of that if there is any chance that it's for real. By "any chance," I mean we'd be very conservative about it. However, we don't want to say something that could create an unjustifiable panic, like Mesa schools ran into last week.
But if it were to be a school-wide situation, parents would be made aware of it as quickly as we could get that message out.
Q: Under the FERPA laws, what are a parents' rights to information?
Weissenfels: You have a right to anything and everything that concerns your child. Any written documentation, or any file that we have, you have a right to that information. You don't have a right to have information on any other child.
Q: Does a parent have any recourse to obtain information on another child?
Weissenfels: There is. You can go through the court system. The court system can subpoena those records, which they generally will do if there is need to use (the information) in a court proceeding.