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Wrong student arrested in bomb threat

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A Center Grove student who falsely confessed to school administrators about making a bomb threat at the high school didn’t understand what he or she was admitting to, and school officials never should have had the student arrested by school police, the county prosecutor said.

The student was taken to the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center in Franklin, and the case was referred to the prosecutor’s office, all after a confession that school officials should have known wasn’t true, Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.

Center Grove is the only Johnson County school district with its own police department, and school officials said in news releases and emails that the police department was a part of the investigation into the April 15 bomb threat from the beginning, though they won’t detail how the school police department was involved.

Center Grove officials instructed school police to arrest the student for the bomb threat after the student falsely confessed to an administrator, Cooper said.

Cooper said Center Grove police, not administrators, should have questioned any students suspected of making the threat. Center Grove police also didn’t fully investigate who left the bomb threat until after the first student falsely confessed and was arrested, Cooper said.

“If (the investigation) had been done properly, the video would have been reviewed, the child would have been read his rights, the child would have had a chance to consult with his parents or guardian, all before he was arrested,” Cooper said. “And in this case it would have meant he wouldn’t have been falsely arrested. That’s what happens when the professional investigators are not doing the investigation.”

Center Grove police didn’t interview other students at the high school or check surveillance footage in the area where the threat was found until after the student was arrested, Cooper said. Once Center Grove police spoke with other students and checked the surveillance footage, officers could see that the arrested student had nothing to do with the bomb threat, Cooper said.

The student who first confessed and was arrested also has a mental health condition that made it difficult for the student to understand what he or she was admitting to. School officials should have considered the student’s condition as they questioned the student about the bomb threat, Cooper said.

Whether the student spent the night in the juvenile detention center before the mistake was discovered is unknown because all records connected to the case have been expunged, Johnson County Circuit Judge Mark Loyd said.

Six days after the student’s arrest, Cooper had all records of the arrest destroyed. Defense attorneys typically fight to have a client’s record expunged, but Cooper took the rare step as the prosecutor because he wanted to ensure there were no records linking the student to the bomb threat, he said.

“When I see an injustice occurring, I think I’m ethically, if not morally, obligated to do anything within my power to correct it,” Cooper said. “And that is what I was doing. I was trying to correct that injustice the best I could.”

A student found and reported a bomb threat written on a wall at Center Grove High School on April 15, and the next day Center Grove police arrested a student for making the threat.

A Center Grove news release sent on April 16 stated that the Center Grove Police Department and high school administrators investigated the threat, and that the student who was arrested admitted making the threat to a high school administrator. Two days later, the school district sent a second news release that said the student had falsely confessed to school officials, and that another Center Grove student had been arrested for making the bomb threat.

Superintendent Richard Arkanoff said in an email that Cooper’s account of what happened was not correct, but he would not say what was inaccurate. Arkanoff also said in the email that the school police department was a part of the investigation from the start.

“I can assure you the Center Grove Police Department was involved in this investigation from the start and that both CGPD and CGHS administrators followed all policies and procedures,” Arkanoff said in the email. “We appreciate the close working relationship we have with the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Juvenile Detention Center. The best interest of the child is at the heart of everything we do.”

Any time school officials suspect a student has committed a crime, the police should be contacted. Before police can question a student about a crime, the student needs to be read his or her Miranda rights, and must have a chance to meet with parents, Cooper said.

Arkanoff would not answer specific questions about the investigation, including when Center Grove police or administrators checked surveillance video or interviewed students, how and why the investigation focused on the first student, how school officials learned the first student who was arrested was not responsible for the threat or whether school officials have verified who actually left the threat.

School board members Jack Russell and Carol Tumey declined to comment for this story. Russell said he was not involved with the investigation when it took place, that he wasn’t aware of any problems and that he needed to speak with Arkanoff. Tumey said she could not speak about any situations at Center Grove, and that any questions need to be sent to the school district’s spokesperson.

Board members Scott Alexander and Rob Richards did not return phone calls seeking comment.

This school year, six bomb threats have been found at area high schools, including Greenwood and Whiteland Community high schools and at the Central Nine Career Center. Two students were eventually arrested for the threats at Whiteland.

Police and school officials at Whiteland and Greenwood interviewed students, reviewed surveillance camera footage, gathered fingerprints and analyzed handwriting samples after each threat to try to find who was responsible.

Cooper said that any time a bomb threat or any kind of illegal activity is suspected at a school, administrators need to contact police and turn the investigation over to officers who are trained to know what to look for. Police officers also know what legal rights students have, and they can ensure those rights aren’t inadvertently violated when they’re questioning a student suspected of a crime, Cooper said.

At least one court hearing was conducted after the first student was arrested, but the details of what happened during the hearing are confidential, Cooper said.

When the proceedings were over, Cooper, Center Grove Police Chief Ray Jackson and Brian Newcomb, a Franklin attorney who served as the temporary magistrate during the case, talked about how police — not school administrators — need to lead any investigations into criminal acts at schools, Cooper said.

“Once it becomes criminal, I want the cops doing the investigation,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he doesn’t know why Center Grove administrators thought the first student who was arrested made the bomb threat. Cooper also doesn’t know the details of the student’s mental health condition but said that the student didn’t completely understand what he or she was admitting to.

He also said that Center Grove officials needed to have police conduct a more thorough investigation by checking the surveillance video and interviewing students immediately, before having the student arrested.

“Given the circumstances, they should have questioned a little bit more whether this kid had really done it or not,” Cooper said.

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