THUNDER BAY – Both of the suspects charged with allegedly directing threats towards Hammarskjold High School are students at the north-side school.
The Thunder Bay Police Service on Wednesday arrested 18-year-old Emilie-Jade Pakrashi and a 14-year-old male who can't be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, charging them each with multiple counts of public mischief and mischief endangering life.
At a Thursday afternoon news conference, police chief Sylvie Hauth said the investigation was a top priority for the force and while all of the threats ended up being unsubstantiated, they were extremely unsettling and disruptive.
"You do not know that at the time. Obviously, with the information that comes through when you have somebody saying there's a device that's going to go up in the school in the next hour, at that point we take it seriously and we take it for being true," Hauth said.
"When a threat comes in, we will always treat it as true. To do anything different would be, I think, irresponsible from our part as a police service. I think parents would want to know that when you have a threat, the seriousness of it is assessed and dealt accordingly. In retrospect, now it's easy to say that this is what we know."
Thunder Bay police Det.-Insp. Ryan Hughes said more than 30 individual threats, involving possible bombs, suspicious packages and potential shootings, were directed at the school anonymously through Crime Stoppers during the academic year up to Wednesday. Those threats resulted in 12 separate incidents where Hammarskjold was closed either for a full or partial day. One threat also included Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute, prompting that high school to close for one day earlier this month. As well, a number of nearby public and Catholic elementary schools initiated safety protocols each time a threat was received.
The charges that are currently before the court cover five dates within the last two weeks – April 8, 9, 11, 16 and 17 – even though the threats date back to October with multiple closures in February and March, as well as this month.
"There is a lot more work to do regarding the threats that have been going on for the last several months," Hughes said, adding there is potential for more charges to be laid against one of the suspects.
Hughes said it doesn't appear that the two suspects were acting together.
"From all of the interviews and the work the investigators have done to this date, we don't believe there was any involvement with the 14-year-old and the 18-year-old," Hughes said.
Hughes said investigators over the last several weeks were tracking a specific "computer device," knowing what the device was but not who it was connected to until Wednesday when Pakrashi was arrested. While she was in custody, additional Crime Stoppers threats were received and connected to the youth, who was subsequently arrested.
Pakrashi, who faces six counts, and the youth, who has been charged with eight offences, both appeared in court earlier Thursday. They were released from custody with conditions to not have any contact with students or staff at Hammarskjold or come wthin 500 metres of the Clarkson Street school. They are also ordered to not possess or use any computers or devices that have access to the internet.
Lakehead Public Schools director of education Ian MacRae said any decision about whether to suspend or expel the two students won't be made until next week at the earliest.
"It would be presumptuous for me to comment on that at this stage, given the fact they've made their first court appearance (Thursday)," MacRae said. "Certainly we will be moving forward Tuesday morning with plans of that nature."
The series of threats resulted in a total of more than 200 uniformed patrol officers responding to the school, along with investigative involvement from the force's cyber crimes unit, criminal investigations branch and surveillance teams. The OPP had also been brought in to provide what Hughes described as minor assistance.
Uniformed officers will be at Hammarskjold next week, though Hauth assured at this point it is a purely precautionary measure.
MacRae is optimistic their presence will help create a sense of comfort and security as the school attempts to return to a sense of normalcy.
"Our first concern is getting the academic program back on track so that students have access to extra help outside classrooms. Secondly, a lot of students participate in co-curricular activities, whether they be athletics, drama or music alike. Chess club was running (Wednesday) so we'll be getting those activities up as soon as we can." MacRae said.
"I sensed even (Thursday) throughout the day that it was busy as usual. We're looking forward to that next week and hopefully it will be an uninterrupted week and we'll be full speed by next Friday."
Hauth, who said a concerning aspect of the incidents was the continued abuse of Crime Stoppers, is hopeful the arrests will show people that they can't get away with using the anonymous reporting system to commit a crime by reporting false and potentially dangerous information.
"I want people in the community to know they cannot hide behind the fact they are anonymous when submitting a tip to Crime Stoppers," Hauth said. "I think it's important to highlight that while it may take some paperwork and warrants on our end, we know we can access the information and obviously come to a resolution."