Two students face multiple charges in threats against Thunder Bay school

Two local students were behind a string of threats that promoted authorities to shut down a high school in northwest Ontario more than a dozen times, police alleged Thursday.

Det. Insp. Ryan Hughes of the Thunder Bay Police Service said an 18-year-old female student and a 14-year-old boy have been arrested in connection with the alleged incidents targeting Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay, Ont.

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He said the pair face a total of 14 charges between them, although he said officers believe the two were working entirely apart from one another.

The multiple arrests, Hughes said, came as a surprise to local investigators.

"We just thought it was one person," he said in a telephone interview. "But with the wording of some of the threats ... we thought there may be a copycat with the other one, which proved true."

Hughes said the woman, viewed as the primary suspect, is a current student at Hammarskjold, which he said first started receiving threats last October.

Only one was documented in 2018, but Hughes said the threats of violence at the school began in earnest on Feb. 13.

On that day, Hughes said the Crime Stoppers tip line received four threats sent in from a mobile device, establishing a pattern that would become familiar over the next two months.

He said a total of 31 threats sent on 15 separate days poured into the anonymous tip system between Feb. 13 and April 17, prompting police investigations that shut the school down on 13 separate occasions.

Hughes said that all the threats zeroed in on Hammarskjold, with one other local Catholic school referenced on a single occasion. The threats all contained references either to explosives or planned shootings on school grounds, he said.

The use of the Crime Stoppers service presented particular challenges for police, since it is designed to act as an anonymous vehicle through which people can leave information about crimes, said Hughes. As such, he said, police cannot obtain information about tipsters without judicial authorization.

The alleged exploitation of the service, he said, represents a particularly troubling element of the case.

"It is extremely frustrating for our officers," he said. "We've reached out to other cities and other police services, and they've never encountered what we've encountered."

Hughes said investigators identified the mobile devices sending some of the threats in the past two weeks, but needed time to link them to their owners.

The charges the two teens face, he said, pertain specifically to threats made in April. More charges are expected in the coming days.

The series of threats proved highly disruptive for Lakehead Public Schools, the board overseeing Hammarskjold.

The school was shut down while police searched the grounds to verify the threats, and school officials began posting assignments online in a bid to keep students from falling behind.

Spokesman Bruce Nugent said the turmoil caused by the threats prompted the board to tighten security and communication protocols, but took a heavy toll on the community.

"Students and staff at the school are physically and emotionally worn out," he said. "We're pleased and hopeful that this is the end."

The 18-year-old woman from Shuniah, Ont., is facing three counts each of public mischief reporting offence and mischief interfering with lawful use of property. The boy from Thunder Bay faces four counts each of the same charges.

Both appeared in court on Thursday morning and have been released on bail or under supervisory conditions.

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