A Toy Gun, a Snapchat Post, and an Arrest

By Mark Keierleber | December 5, 2018

How an online mishap raises questions about student rights in the era of school shooting anxiety

Updated December 6

Zach Cassidento sat in the passenger seat of a police car as it drove up the steep driveway to his modest two-story home in Bethany, Connecticut, and parked outside.

Officers headed to Zach’s bedroom on the lower level, a cluttered space emblematic of an angsty American teenager: neglected scooters and skateboards, a poster for the heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch, and two computers set up for his favorite game — the first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

And the gun.

The gun hanging on the wall was a toy, but it didn’t look that way to at least one person who saw the picture he posted on Snapchat that morning last March. The incident sparked an ordeal that put Zach squarely in the middle of a contentious national debate over security, social media, and student rights amid heightened concerns over mass school shootings.

The airsoft gun, which shoots plastic beads similar to BBs, resembles an M4 assault rifle. The manufacturer emblazons the guns with a smiley face on the side and the phrase “Have a nice day.” Like many kids in the neighborhood, Zach collected the guns and enjoyed shooting them with friends in the woods outside of town — something he planned to do for his 18th birthday, just a few days away.

But when he uploaded a captionless picture of the gun to Snapchat that morning before school, he came under suspicion. Zach, then a senior at Amity Regional High School, said he didn’t intend to threaten anybody. A classmate who saw the post felt otherwise.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to take a picture of this because I think it’s awesome and I know the people I’m friends with think it’s awesome,’” Zach told The 74. “But apparently it wasn’t so awesome to somebody.”

The problem, in a word: timing. Just weeks earlier, a gunman had opened fire in a Parkland, Florida, high school and killed 17 people. Memories of tragedy have yet to fade in Zach’s community, located just 20 miles east of Newtown, Connecticut, which in 2012 suffered the deadliest K-12 school shooting in American history.

What in another era might have been dismissed as harmless teenage fun now is potential fodder for anxious administrators eager to prevent the next school shooting. Social media websites have become ubiquitous platforms for student self-expression. They’re also outlets for students to broadcast shooting threats and suicide warnings.

Missed trouble signs from social media have become a macabre cliché of mass violence. The Parkland suspect fantasized on YouTube about becoming a “professional school shooter.” About a week prior to a 2016 South Carolina elementary school shooting, the suspected gunman boasted online of his goal to “beat” the Newtown shooter and asked, “Should I shoot up my elementary school or my middle school?” And before a 2017 shooting at a New Mexico high school, the gunman outlined his plans on an online gaming forum, noting, “If things go according to plan, today would be when I die.”

After each tragedy, news organizations scour the suspect’s online profiles and reach similar conclusions. “They say, ‘How did you not know? This was all pushed out through social media prior to’” the shooting, said Hart Brown, former chief operating officer at Firestorm Solutions, which helps schools monitor social media for potential violence.

Given that reality, schools nationwide have turned to outlets like Facebook and Twitter for clues.

But some, including Zach, see the practice as imperfect. His story illustrates the challenge schools face in identifying true threats in a digital realm that offers unparalleled access to students’ thoughts and ideas, but where intentions are frequently unclear. The growing sophistication of tools used by schools to monitor and respond to students’ online behavior has only raised the stakes. In some cases, punishing students for online speech has cost districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements. But schools have also faced lawsuits for doing too little to protect students from online harm, or for knowing about a potential threat and not reporting it.

“School districts are very cognizant that there are legal issues on both sides, almost a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario,” said Amelia Vance, director of the Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum.

‘I Want to Die’

Large-scale efforts to identify student threats trace back to Columbine, which sparked national panic over the potential for mass school violence.

Following the 1999 mass school shooting in Colorado, the U.S. Secret Service released a study showing that in 81 percent of school shootings, someone had information about the gunman’s intentions before the attack. In July, the agency released an update of sorts that recommends that educators and law enforcement examine social media posts when investigating a potentially dangerous suspect. Although mass shootings this year have caused a spike in anxiety over school safety and prompted heated policy debates, they remain statistically rare, and campuses have actually become safer in recent years, according to recent National Center for Education Statistics data.

Among those who see value in social media posts as a source of information to protect schools is psychologist Marisa Randazzo, who trains educators how to identify and respond to threats as a managing partner at SIGMA Threat Management Associates.

Confronting people about worrisome posts gives officials a window to intervene when someone feels they’re “at the end of their rope,” said Randazzo, who previously spent a decade at the Secret Service, where she co-directed the Safe School Initiative. The important thing to remember about school shooters, she said, is that they often feel ambivalent about the attack; they don’t necessarily want to carry out the shooting but feel they’ve run out of options.

“They will put their ideas out there and see what reaction people give,” she said. “There’s a chance for us to pick up on that and figure out if they really are planning to engage in violence and find ways to prevent it.”

Zach Cassidento shows off an airsoft gun that looks like an M4 assault rifle. He wound up in trouble after posting a picture of the airsoft gun, which shoots plastic beads similar to BBs, when he posted a picture of the weapon to Snapchat before school. (Mark Keierleber)

That kernel of a chance is leading some districts to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to online threats.

One of them is the school district in Lebanon City, Ohio, where online threats to shoot up the school are not uncommon, Superintendent Todd Yohey said. Students and parents flag worrisome social media posts several times a month, he said, and each is taken seriously. Often, they result in school discipline, arrest, and incarceration.

“There was a time when we would have called the student in, had a discussion, got the parents involved, and then made a decision about whether it was a real threat,” he said. But times have changed. “Now, if there’s a social media post that says, ‘I’m going to shoot up the school,’ that immediately involves law enforcement.”

Also taking a zero-tolerance approach to student social media posts is the school district in suburban Birmingham, Alabama — which faced criticism this year for its response to online speech. District superintendent Craig Pouncey said he recently approved the expulsion of three students who uploaded pictures of themselves to Facebook holding guns and making gang signs. Images like that are a threat to students even if they don’t mention the school directly, he said.

“Sometimes a superintendent has to take certain actions regardless of what the law says,” Pouncey told The 74. “Whether or not those expulsions will stick, it’s immaterial. I had to show that it was enough concern for me that I’ve taken action against those students.”

But online speech is often ambiguous. For example, a statement like “I want to die” could indicate suicidal thoughts or a hyperbolic expression of humiliation.

“It could be interpreted a lot of different ways, so we can’t overreact when we see something on social media and assume, therefore, this is the next school shooter,” Randazzo said. “That’s where social media information could be treated inappropriately or handled badly.”

‘Have a Nice Day’

As far as Zach can tell, context didn’t seem to matter much to school officials the morning of March 9. He was in his first-period human biology class when two security guards showed up to his classroom. They pulled him into a hallway, patted him down, and escorted him to the principal’s office.

“I was walked down the hallway and people were just staring at me, and I looked like I was walking through a jail,” said Zach, towering at 6-foot-4 with a backwards baseball cap over his shaggy hair. “That’s embarrassing.”

In the office, an associate principal explained the situation: A student saw the Snapchat post and, fearful it signaled a possible school shooting, showed it to school officials. Worried parents were calling, and officials considered locking down the school.

Zach was suspended for the day for disrupting the educational process, and police arrested him for breach of peace, a misdemeanor. A school administrator made him delete the Snapchat post from his phone. Officials called his mother, GraceAnne Cassidento, who drove home to let the police inside the house, where they conducted a search and confiscated his collection of three airsoft guns for more than a week.

Zach said school officials behaved rashly. He believes that if they had simply Googled the brand name on the side of the gun, APS Conception, they could have avoided a situation he characterized as a huge misunderstanding. Zach explained to school officials that the gun was just a toy, but he suspects they viewed the manufacturer’s inscription, “Have a nice day,” as a cryptic threat.

A police car sits parked outside Amity Regional High School on a recent afternoon. (Mark Keierleber)

James Connelly, until recently the interim superintendent of Amity Regional School District No. 5, declined to comment directly on Zach’s case. He explained that he did not work for the district at the time of the incident and that even if he had, he would be constrained by student privacy laws. But he spoke more generally about district policy.

The “see something, say something” mantra is a normal part of life in the district. Anxiety levels in the area spiked after Sandy Hook, he said, and again after this year’s shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas. More recently, the district faced criticism from parents who claimed school officials had not done enough to protect students from anti-Semitic social media posts.

The district website allows students to report tips anonymously if they don’t feel comfortable coming forward publicly. When a problematic online post is brought to their attention, Connelly said, educators and the school police work together to determine its severity.

“Most of the time, the student who posted it said, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ or ‘It was misinterpreted,’” Connelly said. In those situations, he added, administrators try to calm those with concerns and “remind the person posting, ‘You know, you have to take a look at how this is going to be perceived by some people out there.’”

Zach said he didn’t think of Parkland before he posted the picture, but the seriousness of school violence isn’t lost on him. Before walking into his high school that fateful day, he brushed off a friend who noted that his Snapchat post could be misconstrued. If he could do it over again, Zach said he’d delete the post.

But he also believes the school should not have intervened in something he did at home.

“There was no threat, the picture was not taken during school hours, the picture was not taken on school property, and the picture was taken on my property, my phone, and posted onto my social media,” Zach said. “Nothing about what I did involved the school, and they punished me for it.”

In the nights after his arrest and leading up to his appearance in juvenile court, Zach struggled to sleep on the mattress that’s plopped on the floor in his bedroom. He said he lost 20 pounds and a doctor told him he needed to eat more. School security staff treated him with suspicion.

Although he said he had to meet once with a probation officer at New Haven’s juvenile court, he wasn’t required to appear before a judge or complete any community service. Police and juvenile court officials declined to provide details about the case because Zach was just under 18 at the time.

The ordeal wasn’t what Zach had in mind for his birthday.

“I’m turning 18, I’m supposed to be at the gas station buying lottery tickets or something,” he said. “I shouldn’t be in court and laying in my bed rolling back and forth thinking I’m going insane.”

A Substantial Disruption

The Cassidentos considered pressing charges, but GraceAnne, a single mother of three teenage boys who works in property management, couldn’t afford a lengthy court battle. An attorney offered to take on the case pro bono in exchange for a large percentage of the potential damages. But Zach, nearing graduation, decided the fight wasn’t worth it.

Students in similar situations have sued their school districts on First Amendment grounds, to mixed results. Districts have paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements after being accused of taking surveillance too far.

Under a 1969 Supreme Court ruling, student free speech is protected unless it causes a substantial disruption at school. Now courts are applying that standard to students’ online speech outside of school. Although courts differ, most have have sided with educators.

In one exception, in 2015, a federal judge ruled in favor of an Oregon middle school student whose profane Facebook post said a health teacher “needs to be shot.” The judge found that the student’s post wasn’t a true threat and did not prompt “a widespread whispering campaign at school.”

In the highest-profile lawsuit to date over a student’s online speech, federal courts went the other way. In 2011, a Mississippi high school student wrote and uploaded to YouTube a rap song accusing two coaches of sexual misconduct, including the lyric “going to get a pistol down your mouth.” After the school suspended the student and sent him to an alternative school, he sued on First Amendment grounds. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the student, noting that the song caused a substantial disruption at school. The student appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with support from rappers T.I., Big Boi, and Killer Mike, but the nation’s highest court declined to take up the case.

Absent guidance from the Supreme Court, students should assume that discretion is in the hands of school administrators, said Abena Hutchful, coordinator of the youth free-expression program at the National Coalition Against Censorship.

There are clear instances when schools should have authority to punish students for their online speech, such as when a student posts, “I’m going to shoot up the school,” Hutchful said. But “more often than not,” she said, schools overreach by using their authority to regulate “artistic or benign expression.”

Zach isn’t the only one who claims he was erroneously punished for social media activity in the post-Parkland environment. In Arkansas, a school district faces a federal lawsuit on allegations it expelled a junior for posting to Instagram a picture of himself wearing a trench coat and holding an assault rifle — an image the student argued was styled to resemble a 1920s mobster. The lawsuit against the Huntsville school district alleges educators violated the student’s free speech rights and erroneously accused him of “criminal and terroristic conduct toward a school community.”

In some cases, schools have disciplined students for online speech that appeared utterly unthreatening. Attorney Kristin Waters Sullivan said that’s what happened to her client, Wade Chapman, who was purportedly punished for a tweet that actually advocated against violence. As students across the country planned to march out of their schools to protest school violence after February’s Parkland shooting, Chapman was given an in-school suspension for an angry tweet about his suburban Birmingham district’s plan to host a “walk up, not out” event instead. The event encouraged students to offer compliments to peers rather than storm out of school in protest. “Translation: We don’t care about student voices or the fact some feel unsafe at school,” Chapman, now a freshman at the University of Mississippi, tweeted.

Waters Sullivan called the case a “cut and dried” First Amendment issue, and Chapman reached an undisclosed settlement with the district. She said the district acted out of a desire to protect its image after Chapman criticized its plans, not to keep students safe.

Pouncey, the suburban Birmingham superintendent, said Chapman was disciplined for creating “an atmosphere of instability within the school environment” because his tweet prompted conversations in the community about school safety. Though he acknowledged students have First Amendment rights, he called Chapman’s tweet “fake news.” He said the district discouraged walkouts to protect students’ safety.

‘School Shooter’

Zach still has his collection of airsoft guns — including the one stamped with the “have a nice day” slogan. But these days, his interest in using them has waned — partly due to the incident, he said, and partly as a result of growing up.

For sure, the situation could have been worse. Zach wasn’t expelled — others have been. In fact, he graduated from Amity High last spring. When he’s not at his job installing windows, he spends his time playing video games and fixing up his old Jeep Cherokee that sputters as he drives down Connecticut’s wooded highways.

Zach Cassidento poses in the kitchen at home in Bethany, Connecticut. A recent graduate of Amity Regional High School, Cassidento now works installing windows. (Mark Keierleber)

Reflecting on the incident, Zach acknowledged that school officials have a duty to check up on students who post troubling messages on social media because “some people are a danger.” But in his situation, he said, they could have done more research. They could have checked his disciplinary record, which he said was clean, or talked with school officials who know him.

“Maybe come to me and talk to me and see what’s up before arresting me,” he said. “One security guard should have come in and spoke to me nicely instead of completely freaking me out.”

Despite the potential for misunderstandings, his mother noted that students shouldn’t feel afraid to speak up if they see something online they find troubling, including the student who came forward about her son.

“We need kids to come forward, so I can’t say I blame whoever it was by any stretch,” GraceAnne said. “But the adults are the ones who needed to make the decisions here, not the kids.“

Although Zach is trying to move on from the incident, others have yet to forget. His 17-year-old brother Justin said students at the school still crack jokes about Zach, the “school shooter.”

Lead image: Recent Amity Regional High School graduate Zach Cassidento plays video games at home in Bethany, Connecticut. (Mark Keierleber) 

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