What really happens to students accused of making threats in one local county

Some cases dismissed, others sent to teen court, diversion programs

By Adrianna Iwasinski - Investigative Reporter

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. - Two days after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood had a stern message for students making threats.

"Knock off the pranks, knock off the jokes so we are able to do our jobs," Chitwood said.

But the pranks and arrests continued.

Two weeks later, on March 1, he posted a bold ultimatum on the Volusia County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.

[READ: Volusia sheriff says students, parents will pay $1,000 for school threats]

It was a call for zero tolerance and holding offenders or their families responsible for the cost of the Sheriff's Office's response. The post stated the cost would be around $1,000 and the true cost could be much higher, depending on the resources required in each individual case.

As it turns out, the true costs ended up being much lower.

According to the Volusia County Sheriff's Office's own records, they made 31 arrests and the cost of investigation for school threat cases ranged from $135 to $630. However, the agency points out the judge has the final say on the cost of restitution.

Even Chitwood said he was surprised by the figures.

[RELATED: Merritt Island teen faces felony after threatening Snapchat post, police say]

"Because when I sat in that meeting and said we were going after restitution the number was $1,032 that's the number that we were all told," Chitwood said, referring to a meeting with the State Attorney and Department of Juvenile Justice before the announcement was made.

RJ Larizza, the state attorney for the 7th District, which covers Volusia County, says their numbers came straight from the law enforcement officers, who submitted affidavits on how much time and manpower was spent on each call.

"We didn't get a number and modify it, we basically took the number that was provided to us by the law enforcement agency and that became the basis of the restitution number," Larizza said.

Chitwood said he is fine with whatever is decided in court.

[READ: 19 Volusia students arrested for threats since Parkland school shooting]

"If the judge feels that it's appropriate to get $100 to be reimbursed for the cost, fine. If they want $1,000 fine. The bottom line for me is that these kids are held accountable," Chitwood said.

Chitwood said it's not about the money -- it's about getting troubled teenagers the help they need to prevent them from carrying out any violent threat. 

"What the prosecutor does, what the judges do, I can't control that," Chitwood said. "All I can say is, if you stand up and threaten to kill a teacher, threaten to kill another student, we're going to lock you up."

He said the ultimate goal is to stop the violence and to prevent disruptive fake threats.

[RELATED: Threat prompts security increase at 2 Orange County schools]

"I wish there was a way when they got sentenced to probation, that they could be sentenced with a family in Parkland and see exactly what happened, see how serious this is," Chitwood said.

He also has this message for parents:

"You wouldn't allow your child to stand up on an airplane at 30,000 feet and yell 'hijack.' You wouldn't allow your child to walk into a crowded movie theater and yell 'fire, fire, fire,'" Chitwood said. "Why are parents not sitting down and telling the children that when you stand up and say you are going to shoot and kill somebody, or say you're bringing a gun to school, there are serious consequences that go with that?"

[READ: What happens to students who make school threats?]

So what happened to all of the students arrested in Volusia County?

News 6 learned out of 31 cases submitted to the state attorney, six were dismissed and eight pleaded no contest and were put on probation. The rest are on track to be placed in either teen court or the county's juvenile diversion program.

Continue reading below the map.

Larizza said his office reviewed every case and said there is a reason not all of them had costly consequences.

"We want to be fair, we want to be even-handed, we need to be objective," Larizza said. "We take the facts and circumstances of each case. We look at it on its own merits. We look at the kid's prior history, if there is any, we also look at what that kid might need. Whether it's counseling or some type of treatment for substance abuse, whatever it might be."

News 6 talked with one mom whose 14-year-old was arrested for making a school threat at Deltona High.

She did not want to show her face, but did want to share her story.

"I hate that my child was one of the 31 kids who was involved in it, but they (law enforcement) did the right thing," the mom said.

News 6 agreed to protect her identity to prevent her and her children from being harassed.

[RELATED: 'I'm going to blow up the school:' Teens in Volusia accused of making threats]

She said her teenager regrets making the threat and admits the arrest was a costly lesson for the entire family. They had to appear in court, and her teen was ordered to probation, counseling and a curfew.

She will also have to pay more than $100 in restitution.

But this parent said she fully supports what Chitwood is trying to do to try to prevent future school threats and shootings, even if it meant arresting her own child. 

"I'm not glad that it happened, but I'm glad that they are taking action," she said.

The Volusia County mom said what happened to them was a wake-up call that forced them to communicate and seek help.

"This is serious, this could be scary, harmful and it’s not a joking matter at all," she said. 

"For kids who have never been in trouble, to be arrested, to have to come to court, to go through the program - I think it's going to have an impact," Larizza said.

The direct impact is those who successfully complete the county's diversion program can get their charges dismissed.

But Larizza said there is also a long-term impact, too. He said 90 percent of kids who go through through the program don't return to the juvenile detention system.

[READ: Student, 13, accused of pointing at classmates, threatening to shoot them]

"They're changed, they're different, they've learned and they move on. They don't commit these crimes again," Larizza said. 

As for the six cases that were thrown out, Larizza said most failed to meet the level required by state statute to prosecute and others had witness issues.

This week, News 6 learned one family who had charges dropped has filed a formal complaint against the Sheriff's Office.

They did not want to comment further on their case.
 

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