On Sept. 25, many residents living in the Forest Lake Area School District were concerned and preoccupied as online threats of violence at the Forest Lake Area High School were discovered and shared across social media. Jayden Benson, however, was unaware of the fervor – he was eating a meal with his cousin, who was watching him while his mother was out of town.
“At the time [the culprit] … started putting stuff out there, we were at dinner, and my phone was in the car,” the 15-year-old FLAHS sophomore recalled.
Later, however, he received a FaceTime call from his friend, the person whose name was falsely used to make the threats in the first place. Benson said that student, whom The Times is not naming because his family declined an interview request, told him that police had been at his house asking him about the threats. Since the student didn’t make the threats, Benson said, he told police that the whole thing must have been some sort of prank, and the only people he could think of who would play a prank on him are his friends, of which Benson is one of the best. People at their school had seen the pair fighting earlier in the day, leading to additional suspicion that Benson had used the scavenger hunt app Goose Chase to pose as his friend and make vague threatening comments about the high school, including one post that read, “I have nothing to live for. This is the best way for me to go down. Down with everyone else.”
“He said, ‘The cops just showed up again,’” Benson recalled. “‘They really think it was either you or me.’”
It turns out, it was neither of them. Benson’s mother, Julie Skarphol, said she asked around and learned the identity of the person who made the threats and discovered that this student didn’t really know Benson or his friend, who apparently was chosen to impersonate at random (The Times has not received confirmation of the suspect’s identity outside its interviews with Skarphol).
Despite Benson’s non-involvement, his next couple of days were filled with confusion and embarrassment, and in the weeks since the threats, he has faced lingering social consequences from some of his classmates. It’s a series of events he and his mother hope police, and especially the school district, will address before the next time an innocent person is caught up in a similar situation. Meanwhile, the district and police have said their policies surrounding such events are designed to keep students safe during uncertain times.
Sequence of events
When Benson and his cousin arrived back at his home, he said, Forest Lake police were already there. Rather than asking him questions to try to determine his guilt or innocence, however, Benson said, he felt that the officer he spoke to was only trying to get him to confess to a crime he hadn’t committed.
“He said, ‘Just tell me it was a prank,’” Benson paraphrased. “‘Tell me that you did and it would be a lot easier. You won’t be in as much trouble.’”
Benson insisted that he had done nothing wrong, that he hadn’t used the Goose Chase app since that morning, and that he and his family didn’t even own any guns. Police eventually left without taking him into custody.
“I thought it was all done and over with,” Benson said.
The next day, the district still held a regular school day, as the Forest Lake Police Department advised administration that it did not find the threats to be credible (in large part due to the way they appeared to warn people away from a potential act of violence, which Police Capt. Greg Weiss said was counter to what a real school shooter would do). Benson rode his bus to the high school in the 7 a.m. hour. However, Benson said that when the bus arrived at the school, two school administrators (including Principal Jim Caldwell) and two Forest Lake police officers took him off of the bus in front of the other students and brought him to the administrative offices.
Once there, he said, his phone and computer were confiscated and his backpacked was searched, all without his consent, and he was kept in a room with a person he did not know. He said he asked to call his mom and was denied, and he was only allowed to leave the room to use the office bathroom, which he was escorted to and from.
“I was scared,” he said. “They were treating me like a straight criminal.”
Meanwhile, Skarphol said, she was only contacted about Benson’s situation sometime after he’d already been placed in the office room. Had she known the school was going to take that action, she said, she simply would have kept Benson home from school that day.
Skarphol said she was told that Benson had been isolated for his own safety, and when she spoke to Caldwell again later in the day, she felt it was implied that her son would be able resume normal school activities the following morning.
“[They indicated] he will be able to resume classes tomorrow because they expected to get the IP address information back before the start the school the next day,” she said, referring to police efforts to work with the Goose Chase developer in Canada to discover the digital origin of the threats.
The next morning, however, police had not yet received the IP address, and Benson was again pulled off the bus in front of his peers. This time, he said, police seemed very suspicious of him because he’d forgotten his computer at home. They also wanted to search his phone, but Benson refused to grant them permission to do so, instead looking up its IP information himself and providing it that way. Less than an hour after he was pulled off the bus, he was informed that police had obtained the IP address of the threat poster, which confirmed that Benson hadn’t been involved. He was allowed to continue his school day normally.
After being released from the administrative offices, Benson was late to his first class of the day, where he was faced with questions about where he had been and stares from those who’d seen him escorted into the school. Embarrassed and unsure of how to explain what he’d been through, Benson called a relative to pick him up early.
Over the next week or so, Benson was faced with curious stares from fellow students, and some students bullied his friend whose name had been used to make the posts, calling him “school shooter.” Benson said the person who really made the threats is not at school and that student’s friends have made up other reasons why the student is no longer attending class.
“We got embarrassed like that, and the person who really did it is at home probably sitting on the couch right now,” Benson said.
While confidentiality law prohibits the district from commenting directly on the experiences of individual students in this situation, FLAS Superintendent Steve Massey spoke with The Times about some of the district’s broader actions surrounding the threats as well as its general policies concerning threatening situations and potentially threatening students. He said that while the district prioritizes maintaining the dignity and confidentiality of all of its students in potentially compromising situations, ultimately its most important priority in cases like these is security.
“First of all, we need to minimize any potential risk in these situations,” he said. “That is first and foremost. We’re going to follow-up in any situation with any student who might pose a threat.”
Though the district tries to keep such follow-up as low profile as possible, he said, it still needs to happen. He said some of that follow-up, including the timing of conversation with parents, can be affected by when and how the district has contact with and access to potentially threatening students.
“We need to respond in a way that minimizes or prevents access to the school or access to harming others,” he said.
Capt. Weiss said the school district takes the lead on policy and security decisions that occur on school grounds, while the Police Department works with the district to support its safety goals. For example, he said, the department never did locker searches back when there were lockers at the high school, and it wouldn’t do a backpack search now. Those duties would fall to the school, while police officers are still bound by their own set of policies and constitutional requirements.
“Even though we’re in that school and assigned to that school, the badge overweighs that piece of work,” he said.
Massey added that parent communications and district decisions regarding potentially threatening students are also affected by the information the district has at a given moment.
“We followed up the second day [after the threats] with a student … [because] we did not still have this completely resolved,” he said.
Regarding any confiscation of electronics, Massey said doing so without student consent would not be allowed under district policy. However, he noted, if a student voluntarily gives up their phone in this situation, that’s often for the best, as it minimizes the ability for the details of a developing situation to be “communicated widely and broadly.”
Weiss said he understood Benson’s discomfort when he was interviewed by police, but he said officers wouldn’t be faithfully executing their duties to help protect district high schoolers if they didn’t follow up on their leads by interviewing Benson – especially when, at the time, his name was the only one they had.
“Sometimes, people get upset when they’re interrogated or questioned, especially if they didn’t do something. … I get it, but we have jobs to do,” he said.
Now, about three weeks after the original threats were made, Benson’s life is more or less back to normal. Most people no longer believe he was involved with the threats, and the stares and remarks have mostly gone away.
Still, it hurt to be thought of as a potential danger to his classmates, as someone who would broadcast a message of hate and fear to his friends.
“They [administrators and police] were just treating me like I really did something wrong, even though they had no proof,” he said.
Skarphol feels her son’s constitutional rights were violated while he was at school, and she wants to work with district officials on a policy that would avoid a situation where a student like Benson would be forced to be embarrassed in front of his classmates and kept in a room all day against his will. She and Benson would also like an apology from the school, or at least an official acknowledgment that he and his friend had nothing to do with the threats.
“Let’s publicly tell everybody not only is he not involved at all, he is a victim in this situation,” Skarphol said.
Massey pointed out that an email sent to parents on Sept. 27 – the day Benson was allowed to return to normal classes after briefly being held in the administration area – the district announced that the person responsible for the threats had been found and was not at the school, information that should clear anyone who was at school that day from suspicion. He added that the email also explicitly stated that the student whose name was used in the threats did not make the posts. He felt, and continues to feel, that this solution was an effective way to clear innocent students of suspicion while following school rules about confidentiality.
“Preserving the confidentiality, we can’t say, ‘Jayden was not involved or [any specific student] was not involved,’” he said. He noted that he was only using Benson’s name in this example because The Times had used it during Massey’s interview, not because he was confirming or denying the details of Benson’s account. If he did that, the district would be in violation of its confidentiality requirements.
Weiss said while he understood the discomfort of Benson and his mother, he ultimately believes the cooperation between the school district and police department worked out well in this case. Police were able to track down an anonymous perpetrator of an internet crime in just a couple of days while working with an app developer from out of the country, an outcome he said was “unheard of” and only possible because of an excellent working relationship and communication between police and the district. He added that Benson was also very cooperative throughout the process, a good example of the partnership police need to have with the community to keep the public safe.
“Working together is the only way we’re going to get stuff done,” he said.