The high school senior who threatened gun violence against his classmates via text message last Christmas has been sentenced to 12 months’ probation.
Activities were cancelled at Ponoka Composite High School Dec. 21 after a student received a text message from the 17-year-old youth who pleaded guilty May 8 to making threats against the school — just one week after a violent shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.
The youth’s sentencing was adjourned to July 12 at the Ponoka courthouse where Judge James Hunter heard arguments for the severity of the punishment. Crown prosecutor Sheila Joyce presented the circumstances of the case and the content of the text message that closed the school. A friend of the youth received this text Dec. 20: “I recommend not going to school tomorrow. Just some friendly advice.”
“It was definitely by the young person. This was a threat,” stated Joyce.
The recipient of the text responded several times by asking why but no answer was forthcoming. In the morning of the next day, school started and principal Ian Rawlinson received word of the threat, explained Joyce.
Police were notified and they attended the home of the youth, where firearms were found.
“He did have access to firearms in the context of a hobby,” the prosecutor explained.
The actions by the school and Mounties was appropriate to the threat but because of the youth’s lack of criminal history, Joyce did not think he should be sentenced to house arrest. “I’m not going to submit for a custodial period but asking probation for one year.”
Provisions under the Youth Criminal Justice Act state the sentence must not result in a punishment that is greater than that for an adult, explained defense lawyer Kevin Lesler. He asked Hunter to consider the act with regard to the Ponoka youth.
In response, Joyce pointed out the shooting in Connecticut.
“They are words uttered after a tragic set of circumstances…uttered over text messaging,” she explained. “The words were a crime. He chose to make those words.”
“His degree of responsibility is high,” she added.
A guilty plea should not be understated however and Joyce’s hope was that nothing else such as the threat would occur in the youth’s future. She suggested community service would be a meaningful way to provide reparations for the community.
Lesler argued the youth, who is now 18, has paid a significant price for the text message. He spent the night in jail and had strict recognizance with the police. Starting Dec. 23 the youth had to check in with police in person and had a 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. curfew daily.
“He has not breached those conditions,” explained Lesler.
He missed graduation, was not allowed near schools and was required to ask permission before leaving town. “It disrupted his entire life.”
Despite these restrictions, the youth tried to get on with his studies through special programming at Wolf Creek Public Schools and he has started a job out of town.
“He seems to take responsibility for his actions,” he said.
Lesler believes the full consequences of that text were not fully realized by the youth at the time but having lost the ability to see his friends and take part in school activities has given him a better understanding. “It shifted his focus and work on what was important.”
“Ponoka is a small town with all the social dynamics that go with it…He still remains isolated in the community as a result of this.”
He asked Hunter to consider the youth be discharged under conditions and provided letters and a recent case for consideration. The judge was annoyed at being presented with the additional information without being able to study it prior to sentencing.
“Without having sent them to the court ahead of time…It’s unfair to the court and unfair to the client,” said Hunter.
He asked the youth if he had anything to say. The youth appeared shy and unsure but provided this statement: “I’m sorry that the students missed the banquet.”
The sentencing was adjourned until Hunter could review the files.
After his review, the judge stated the text message recipient did the right thing by contacting the authorities because of the severity of the threat and its close date to the shootings in the Connecticut school. “This was more than missing that banquet.”
Hunter was concerned with the severity of sentencing, the length of it and how it could affect the youth’s life, especially as he deals mainly with adults.
“I have to caution myself,” Hunter said. “It is difficult to differentiate between adults and youth.”
The punishment must be proportionate to the seriousness of the event but cannot exceed what an adult would face but the stress caused by the threat should not be taken lightly. The judge wondered if the youth understood the trouble and issues caused that day.
“You put them (friends) and their parents through stress untold,” he stated.
At the time the text may have been seen as a dark joke but the judge did not think anybody found it funny. Hunter was appalled someone who sent such a text would think it funny. Much responsibility should fall on the youth. Despite the severity of the situation, Hunter wanted to ensure the boy can learn from his mistakes and the sentence must be treated as such.
“We don’t have the gun culture the United States has, fortunately,” he added. “You’re a youth and you’re entitled to be treated differently.”
Hunter felt positive about the presentencing report and the actions the youth has taken since Dec. 21. But he also feels the restrictions were reasonable and wondered how the youth’s friends could forgive him.
“I wouldn’t have anything to do with you,” the judge said.
But he wanted to ensure the adult criminal judgment did not get in the way of a just sentence. “Simply for the sake of doing it…I cannot do that.”
The youth received 12 months’ probation and was ordered to keep the peace and be on good behavior for that time. He is to report to a probation officer and cannot leave the province unless given permission, has a daily curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily to ensure he can work.
He is also restricted from alcohol or drugs and must take counselling and life skills training. A letter of apology must be written to PCHS principal Rawlinson within the first three months of probation, explaining his understanding of the consequences of his actions. He must not be in possession or have control of weapons.
Imposing a community service component was important to Hunter in sentencing and ordered 60 hours be completed and proof submitted to the probation officer. “But it has to be significant and meaningful.”