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Court Upholds Conviction Of Student Who Made Social Media Post Threatening To Bring Gun To School
A.G., a minor high school student at Simon Rodia Continuation School, posted an image of a realistic-looking gun replica with the caption, “Everybody goes to school tomorrow. I’m taking gum [sic],” on his Snapchat account, which was visible to about 60 of A.G.’s “friends.”
One of A.G.’s Snapchat friends’, D.J., who attended Linda Marquez School for Social Justice (Linda Marquez) saw the post and shared it with one of her teachers, Carol Henriquez (Henriquez) because D.J. believed that A.G. attended her school and she was concerned about a potential school shooting. In fact, A.G. had attended Linda Marquez but transferred to Simon Rodia Continuation School earlier that year.
Henriquez, who had A.G. as a student during a previous semester and believed he still attended Linda Marquez, felt “fear, concern, and confusion when she saw the image,” “was afraid the image was a threat of a school shooting,” and “felt she and her students were in danger.” Henriquez, therefore, contacted the police department and shared the Snapchat post. A few hours later, A.G., made a second post on his Snapchat account with the caption “Everyone, it wasn’t real. I was xanned [sic] out. D.J. saw the post and shared it with Henriquez, but they both remained fearful nevertheless.
The next morning, Detective Steve Jeong went to Simon Rodia Continuation School and spoke with A.G. about the Snapchat posts. A.G. told Detective Jeong that he made the first Snapchat post because “he likes to see [sic] reaction in people, what people might say.” A.G. denied any intention to threaten anyone or carry out a school shooting and seemed apologetic. Detective Jeong confirmed that the gun was a replica.
A.G. was charged with three counts of making a criminal threat. A.G. testified that he intended for the first Snapchat post to be a joke, that “he was being immature” and did not intend for the post to be taken as a threat. The juvenile court found A.G. guilty of two of the counts, dismissed one of the counts, and ordered A.G. to serve six months of probation. A.G. appealed.
On appeal, A.G. contended that the evidence presented against him was not sufficient to establish the crime of making a criminal threat. To establish the crime of making a criminal threat, the evidence had to establish (1) A.G. willfully threatened to commit a crime, which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person; (2) A.G. made the threat with the specific intent that the statement is taken as a threat, even if he had no intention of actually carrying it out; (3) the threat was on its face and under the circumstances so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat; (4) the threat actually caused the person threatened to be in sustained fear for his/her own safety or for his/her immediate family’s safety; and (5) the threatened person’s fear was reasonable under the circumstances.
A.G. alleged that the evidence did not show: “(1) he intended his Snapchat post to be understood as a threat; (2) he willfully threatened to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury to anyone; (3) he intended to threaten D.J. or Henriquez specifically; (4) any alleged threat was unequivocal or unambiguous to reasonably sustain fear in either D.J. or Henriquez; or (5) any threat to D.J. or Henriquez was sufficiently immediate to place either of them in fear.” However, the Court disagreed with A.G.’s contentions.
First, the Court noted that A.G.’s post contained a threat to bring a gun and an image of what appeared to be a real gun, A.G. had told Detective Jeong that he wanted to see a reaction from the people who saw his Snapchat post, and A.G.’s friends on Snapchat included students who went to both his current and previous schools. The Court concluded that the record contained sufficient evidence that A.G. intended his Snapchat post to be understood as a threat and that he willfully threatened to kill or cause great bodily injury.
Second, the Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to find that A.G. intended to communicate a threat to D.J. and Henriquez because he sent the threat through Snapchat, which given the way Snapchat works, could be disseminated to a large group of people.
Third, the Court concluded that the image of the replica gun and the caption constituted a threat that was unequivocal and specific. Fourth, the Court held that A.G.’s threat was immediate and reasonably placed D.J. and Henriquez in fear. Given “the cultural climate where school shootings sadly and tragically happen on a regular basis,” it was reasonable for D.J. and Henriquez to believe A.G.’s threat was real. Therefore, the Court affirmed the findings of the juvenile court.
In re A.G. (Cal. Ct. App., Dec. 14, 2020, No. B304063) 2020 WL 7333876, as modified (Dec. 23, 2020).
Schools, universities, and colleges should have internet and social media policies in place that give them the discretion to discipline students for on- and off-campus conduct that disrupts or could foreseeably disrupt the school or its students, employees, or other members of the school community. Schools should note, however, that the Education Code specifically prohibits secondary schools from making or enforcing any rule that disciplines a high school student at a secondary school solely on a basis that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment or California Constitution. Schools must therefore take a cautious approach when disciplining high school students for unpopular or seemingly improper speech.