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Gun threats, student assault frustrate Northern Lebanon School District parents

Written by Merriell Moyer/Lebanon Daily News | Jun 8, 2018 2:01 PM
Northern Lebanon High School.JPG

Bullying at the Northern Lebanon School District has escalated in some cases to gun threats and hate speech made on video, and students being physically attacked on school property -- causing some parents frustrated with a lack of action from school district officials to turn to police and file reports with state agencies to get help.

The guardian of a child who was threatened with a gun by another student told the Lebanon Daily News she tried exhaustively to get the school to react.

"Every time you hear about a (school) shooting they say, 'Well the parents didn't report this to the school. They didn't report any warning signs,'" Tammy Cessna, the legal guardian of a Northern Lebanon Middle School student said. "The news media always puts it out there that the parents didn't report stuff to the school. Honestly, I thought the school had to take care of this."

Cessna's granddaughter, a middle school student in the school district, received two threatening videos via Snapchat from a middle school boy this school year.

One video shows the boy holding a semiautomatic handgun, which he dry fires several times, while saying, "B----, I hope the f--- you do. You'll be a dead son of a b----, I'll tell you that."

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"Every time you hear about a (school) shooting they say, 'Well the parents didn't report this to the school. They didn't report any warning signs.' The news media always puts it out there that the parents didn't report stuff to the school."

- Tammy Cessna, legal guardian of a Northern Lebanon Middle School student who was threatened via social media

The other video shows a rifle or shotgun leaning against a wall as the boy says, "I'll do it. I swear to God I will."

After receiving the video threat showing the handgun, Cessna's granddaughter didn't immediately take it seriously, thinking that the gun was a toy until the parent of a friend pointed out that the handgun was a real one because of the lack of a red or orange safety cap on the end of the barrel.

At that point, the girl took the video to her grandmother.

"I said, 'It's Dec. 22, as soon as you get back from Christmas vacation you go into the office about this and then (Guidance Counselor) Kristen (Schaffer) will call me and I'll come in,'" Cessna said. "That is always what happened in sixth and seventh grade - the kids would put slips in and someone would talk to them - but that's not what happened this year."

In January, after she returned from Christmas break, Cessna's granddaughter filled out a slip to see Schaffer and wrote "stress" on the slip as the reason for the meeting.

However, no one ever called Cessna's granddaughter to the office to discuss her problem. 

A few weeks later, Cessna said her granddaughter was taken to Schaffer's office by a male teacher for allegedly acting "in a sexual manner" because she was adjusting the tank top she was wearing under her sweatshirt.

Schaffer called Cessna about that incident and Cessna said she was incensed first that a male teacher was watching her granddaughter, and second that this concern got attention when a gun threat did not.

"She offered me counseling for her," Cessna said. "That was their solution, offering her counseling."

But nothing from the school was offered about the gun threat, Cessna said of the days following.

A reporter's call to Schaffer for more information was not returned, and Northern Lebanon Superintendent Erik Bentzel stated via email, "District guidelines state that all media requests go through the office of the Superintendent. I am asking that you abide by that."

Cessna did not push any further regarding the gun threat at that time, but brought it up again later, after 17 children were gunned down by a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14.

"I called Feb. 21," Cessna said. "I called the school and Mrs. Schaffer never got back to me. I left a message that went right to her voice mail. I said I really needed to speak to her about a threat on (my granddaughter's) life."

Schaffer did not return her call, so Cessna called again early on Feb. 22.

"I thought I'd grab them before school starts and then they'll have no excuse in talking to me - and Ann Marie (Rathmell) picked up," Cessna said. "She says, 'Kristen is busy with course selection, so she'll have to get back to you next week.'"

Cessna told Rathmell that she needed to speak to Schaffer immediately, but Rathmell insisted Schaffer was too busy to talk, according to Cessna. Rathmell told Cessna she wouldn't let her speak to anyone unless she thought it was important.

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"I said, 'OK, some kid threatened to kill (my granddaughter) with a gun and I've been trying to get people to listen out there for two months now and no one wants to talk to me, and now I want someone to talk to me,'" Cessna said. "She said, 'I'll have to see what I can do and get back to you.'"

A few hours later, at about 9:30 a.m., Cessna received a phone call from Assistant High School Principal Benjamin Wenger - who was accused in May of throwing around a sex toy in the office during school hours (along with High School Principal Jennifer Hassler and Middle School Principal Brad Reist).

Wenger told Cessna that he had her granddaughter in the office and that she had already been interviewed, so Cessna told him she was on her way to the school.

Through state police, both Cessna's granddaughter and the boy who sent the video received harassment charges, according to Cessna.

"In hindsight, I should have called the police immediately," Cessna said. "Honestly, I didn't know as a parent I had to call the police."

The parents of the boy who sent the video also talked to Lebanon Daily News when contacted about the matter.

They had discussed with their son previously concerns about him being bullied at school by Cessna's granddaughter. The parents of the boy said they did not realize the extent of the bullying, and did not know he sent the video.

The parents verified several times they were not informed by the district until Feb. 22, the day the state trooper had both students in the office, about a month after the video had first been reported to the school district.

The parents of the boy who sent the video insisted to Lebanon Daily News that the school could not have known about the video prior to the Feb. 22 meeting.  

When they were told LDN had statements on the record that the video recipient's family reported it to the counselor several times, the mother said, "that's a problem."

The boy's parents stressed they have been addressing the situation at home, and reiterated that both children were charged with harassment.

In May, Cessna's granddaughter found a second video with the threat involving the shotgun, which actually predated the handgun video, while going through the camera roll on her phone.

The video featuring the shotgun was then reported to Schaffer, the guidance counselor, by the girl. A meeting was then set up between Cessna and High School Principal Jennifer Hassler.

Hassler was very nice to her during this first meeting, Cessna said, but Cessna alleges that the principal refused to take a copy of the shotgun video.

"I don't remember all the details, but she said, 'I don't want a copy of it because I'm a mandatory reporter. I'm sorry you were never directed in the right direction back in January. We are mandatory reporters and that's why we didn't want anything to do with that video' - meaning the handgun video," Cessna said.

School employees, medical professionals, members of the clergy and social workers are mandatory reporters who are required to report suspected child abuse if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is a victim of child abuse, according to the state Department of Human Services website

Cessna claims Hassler told her that because the video was exchanged phone to phone it was an at-home problem and not something the school district needed to deal with since they are mandatory reporters and would have to fill out a lot of paperwork that would have to be filed with the state.

Before the meeting ended, Hassler promised that Cessna's granddaughter would be safe in the school.

Assaulted at school

Within the last 10 days, a ninth-grade student at the high school was allegedly assaulted and his face was cut.

At Tuesday's district school board meeting, the grandmother of the ninth-grade student interrupted the meeting, stating her grandson had been "assaulted and disfigured" before she stormed out of the meeting.

The mother of the boy verified the information about her son on Tuesday.  After this story first published Friday, she told the Daily News her son was assaulted as he came out of class into the hallway and "doesn't remember anything after that."

She also said the school district said they "can't" give her any information about what happened in this incident.

A teacher, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, verified they had heard about this incident and some students have expressed to teachers their fear of being attacked in a similar manner.

Trooper David Beohm, the public information officer for the state police at Jonestown - the police department with jurisdiction over Northern Lebanon School District - said no such incident was reported to state police.

However, Beohm confirmed June 1 that state police are investigating a "hazing-type incident" at the school, but said he could not release any more information.

Superintendent Bentzel told Lebanon Daily News that only he could provide to the LNP details of the boy's attack, and he wasn't giving it.

"At this point, what I can tell you is that the only factual information is that there was an incident where a student received a cut to his face," Bentzel said via email June 7. "Everything else is inaccurate."

When pressed for clarification on what was inaccurate about the information, Bentzel said, "Your information as you provided is totally wrong. I am not legally allowed to provide you with what you are asking for though. The facts of this situation did not warrant contacting PSP (Pennsylvania State Police)."

Bentzel and school resource officer Michael Koval were specifically asked by the Lebanon Daily News via email Wednesday if they could provide a comment on whether a student "was pulled into a room by two or three other boys and that one of them cut him on the cheek with a razor blade."

Cuts from Northern Lebanon assault.jpg

Cuts on the left cheek of a boy who was allegedly held down by other students and cut with a razor blade during the school day at Northern Lebanon. This image was cropped to protect the identity of the boy. (Photo: Submitted)

"We called state police this morning and they have no record of this incident being reported to them," the email to Bentzel and Koval says. "By law, I believe you are required to report all assaults that take place on school property - that is in PA 1949 Act 14 Section 1303-A which is cited in board policy 218.2 Terroristic Threats - so I was wondering why state police weren't notified about this incident. Could either of you comment on any of this?"

Koval did not respond to the email.

School Board President Glen Gray said he was not aware of the incident until the boy's grandmother brought it up at the June 5 board meeting.

"I obviously am very, very concerned - I have grandchildren in the school," Gray said. "Certainly something like this - I don't know all the facts. At this point I would say I can't say anything more on the matter."

The school board could potentially be called on to arbitrate at a hearing if parents call the administration's disciplinary action into question, and because of that, Gray said the board would not have been made aware of such an incident.

"It wasn't something we weren't kept out of the loop on," Gray said. "There wasn't a malicious intent of not letting the board - it's not typical (to let the board know) about that particular (kind of incident) because ... if they are challenged we need to be as impartial as possible."

Another threat made

A different family from Northern Lebanon on Thursday shared a video with Lebanon Daily News that was sent to their children, who are middle and high school-aged. The video was recorded outside of a classroom at the school.

The camera points at the ground, but band instruments and other details in the school hallway can be seen. There is no traffic in the hallways, which may indicate classes were in session.

In the video, a boy's voice is telling others that he will extract revenge on other students, using the phrase "tear them apart," at which time two girls can be heard giggling in the classroom.

The mother in the family that received the video said she notified the school, leaving messages for the administration and then calling the school board members. Those messages went unanswered for more than 24 hours before Bentzel texted her, asking her not to contact school board members so that they may remain impartial in the future.

What the school says

Several parents, students and teachers in the school district told the Lebanon Daily News in May that they felt bullying incidents were not being dealt with properly by the school district's administration.

Erik Bentzel headshot.jpg

Erik Bentzel (Photo: Lisa Chenoweth, For The Lebanon Daily News)

As previously reported by LDN, Superintendent Erik Bentzel said that all bullying incidents are taken seriously, and parents may feel like nothing is being done since the details of another child's punishment can't be disclosed.

"We fully investigate every report of bullying," he said. "But, we can't tell (both sets of parents) about the consequences - I can't talk to (a parent) about another (parent's) child."

Bentzel also assured Lebanon Daily News in a phone call he initiated that what happens in the buildings at Northern Lebanon is "no different, no worse" than bullying at any other Lebanon County school.

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Lebanon Daily News was not able to find instances of multiple gun threats or assaults with a weapon (razor blade) from other districts that weren't handled by state police or the local jurisdiction.

And threats - any threats - should be taken very seriously, according to Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist and expert on the psychology of school shooters.

"It's possible it's not meant literally, especially if it's more of an off-hand comment like, 'If that kid does that to me one more time I'm going to kill him.' Comments like that are less likely to be meant literally," Langman said. "However, if someone goes to the trouble of making a video or writing some sort of document outlining what he is planning to do to a particular person or group of people, that suggests that it is much more of an imminent danger. But any threat should be investigated." 

As to whether State Police have responded to NL schools for other incidents, the Daily News asked for this semester's numbers through May 31.

Between Jan. 1 and May 31, Trooper Beohm with Jonestown Barracks said there were 18 responses to the district, which includes two "domestic safety" incidents.

This story is part of a series of stories regarding problems children, parents and teachers have brought up regarding Northern Lebanon School District, including issues that are governed by Pennsylvania law regarding mandatory reporting of some types of incidents.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The Lebanon Daily News. 

Published in Lebanon, News

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