About 30 Hempfield High School students staged a walkout Monday morning to protest how the school district handled a perceived violent threat shared on social media last week.
The walkout, which was also meant to shed light on how the district disciplines white students compared to Black students, began at 8:30 a.m. and lasted about an hour. The district said it was peaceful and ended with a conversation among students and high school Principal Jim Dague.
The student whose disciplinary action was the subject of the walkout brought a knife to school in addition to posting the questionable social media posts, police said, but no criminal charges were filed. The district said it is still in the process of disciplining the student.
According to screenshots provided to LNP | LancasterOnline, a high school student last week posted images to Snapchat -- a smartphone app that allows users to share images and messages that disappear shortly after they’re sent -- of himself in front of a flag supporting former President Donald Trump for president in 2024 with a message saying, in part, “Tomorrow is going to be one of many days that we are going to show our democratic school that we don’t mess around.”
Images shared with LNP | LancasterOnline show the student at school the next day with the same Trump flag draped over his shoulders.
Follow-up Snapchat posts showed the same student in a cowboy hat with messages like, “I own 57 guns” and “Just got done sharpening all my knives and cleaning one of my guns.”
Another screenshot showed a conversation between the student and another Snapchat user talking about the student getting suspended and potentially “kicked out” of Hempfield for bringing a knife to school.
Complaints sent to the school districts as well as East Hempfield Township police prompted the school district to post a statement on its website Thursday. The district said it was aware of the potential threats and were working with police to investigate.
“Everything that has been shared with us as a potential threat has been investigated by police, and at this time there is no evidence of a credible threat to Hempfield High School,” the statement read.
East Hempfield Township police Lt. Matthew Pohle told LNP | LancasterOnline Monday that he believes students twisted the message’s meaning and believed it was a threat. After interviewing the students, Pohle said, police and school officials determined the messages were not meant to be threatening, and no charges were filed against the student.
Pohle said it was just a kid making a comment alluding to politics -- last week was the municipal election. “Somehow it became a threat and it blew out of proportion,” he said.
Pohle also confirmed the student was found to have a knife on school property when being interviewed. Again, after interviewing the student, it was determined that he had no malicious intent and was simply carrying a pocket knife as some people do.
District review ongoing
While that may not be against state law, carrying a weapon in school is in violation of Hempfield’s weapons policy, or Policy 218. That policy states those who violate it “shall be expelled for a period of not less than one (1) year.”
Students who protested Monday said they were upset that the student had not received more serious discipline for posting what seemed to be threatening messages and bringing a weapon to school.
“A lot of the kids didn’t feel safe at school,” said one of the protesters, high school junior Makenzi Souders. “The school was doing nothing about it.”
If the student in question, who is white, was Black, she said, he would have been disciplined much more harshly.
Images from the walkout show a group of students waving Black Lives Matter and pro-LGBT flags. One student had a sign with the student’s Snapchat images and asking, “IS THIS NOT A THREAT?”
According to the district, which didn’t share specifics on student discipline, the situation isn’t so simple.
“Students were protesting what they perceived to be the outcome for a student involved in an incident last week at school,” Hempfield School District spokesperson Cheryl Irwin-Bass said in an email Thursday. “Principal Dague reviewed the process that the school must follow as outlined in Policy 218 and explained that the process is ongoing and is not yet complete. Mr. Dague also outlined the process that the school undertakes for internal threat assessments.”
Some parents joined the protest, as well.
Jennifer Applegate, 43, of East Hempfield Township, said she was proud of the students who stood up against the administration. Applegate’s daughter, a 10th-grader, did not participate in the walkout because she was afraid she would get in trouble if she walked out, Applegate said.
Applegate, a Democrat who ran for a two-year seat on the Hempfield school board but lost to her Republican opponent, Justin Wolgemuth, said she was saddened the student who made the perceived threats didn’t seem to have enough support. With more support staff, perhaps the district could have helped, Applegate, a certified trauma-informed counselor, said.
“I feel like that was a cry for help,” she said.