Message Is Clear in N.Va.: IM 'Threats' Can Bring Teens Trouble in an Instant

Laura Shinners and Ashley Mckinless wear T-shirts to show their support for the Yorktown High School freshman facing a felony threat charge.
Laura Shinners and Ashley Mckinless wear T-shirts to show their support for the Yorktown High School freshman facing a felony threat charge. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005

The pranks teenagers play on each other are almost rites of passage -- making crank phone calls, scrawling scary messages on lockers and toilet-papering a friend's yard are usually seen as harmless adolescent mischief and come with few repercussions.

But in the past two weeks, two students in Arlington have been arrested -- and were still being detained this weekend -- after their apparent pranks were taken more seriously. Both involved instant messages, or IMs, the on-screen form of real-time computer communication that takes up hours of American teenagers' lives each day and that allows them something a crank call doesn't always: anonymity.

On May 18, a 15-year-old Yorktown High School boy sent an anonymous IM to a friend, threatening to harm her and others at school. She told her parents that night, and police evacuated Yorktown the next day, swarming the school before the boy turned himself in. He is being held without bond at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Home in Alexandria on a felony charge of making a written threat to kill.

A few days later, on May 24, Washington-Lee High School was locked down for the afternoon after three students reported receiving similar threats via IM. On Thursday, police arrested a 13-year-old Swanson Middle School student, a brother of one of the recipients, and charged him with the same felony count and harassment by computer, a misdemeanor. He is being held without bond until a second arraignment scheduled for Tuesday.

The arrests have exposed a new gray area for teenagers. They live in an age when it is delectably easy to use an anonymous screen name to freak out their friends -- and in a society that has learned the hard way to take threats of violence seriously.

Neither boy's intent has been disclosed. Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Theophani K. Stamos declined to comment on why they were still being held. Arlington County police spokesman Matt Martin said he had not heard of any evidence that either meant to hurt anyone.

The Yorktown boy's attorney, Judith L. Wheat, said she has heard none either, and Friday she issued a statement from his parents, who said, "Our family feels terrible that an act of poor judgment intended as a practical joke has caused such a disturbance to his classmates, the school and our community."

The Washington Post generally does not identify juveniles charged with crimes.

Among Yorktown students, the arrest of the popular freshman has produced waves of shock, indignation and, naturally, long scrolls of IM exchanges. Some students have made T-shirts calling for his release, and an online petition, signed by more than 300 students and a few parents, calls on officials to reduce the charges.

"Everyone does things like that, it's part of teen years," one petitioner wrote.

"No one ever thinks a joke with one of their friends is going to go that out of control," wrote another.

"I don't think his life should be messed up after this mistake or he will actually DO it when he gets out," wrote a third.

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