Harrisburg school threat deemed not credible, ends in arrest of student

A Snapchat picture with assault weapons, racial slurs, and threats circulated quickly in Sioux Falls area
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 7:26 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - An investigation into a perceived threat made against Harrisburg High School was ultimately deemed to be “not credible” by Lincoln County authorities, but not before a scare for students, parents, and staff.

Around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Sheriff Steve Swenson received word of a picture of an assault weapon — sent via the social media platform Snapchat around 6 p.m. — that included messaging with the words ‘wait til tomorrow,’ a threat to teach people a lesson, and a racial slur.

”It spread like wildfire,” Swenson said, mentioning about 30 people saw the original group post. “As you can imagine, thousands of people probably had that message within a half hour.”

This included students in the Sioux Falls Public School district and their parents.

Swenson is the father of an HHS student and received dozens of texts from fellow frightened parents. Messages like “this is scary” and “my kids are freaked out.”

The sheriff responded to police calls about the situation personally. He reached out to Lincoln County detectives and the Sioux Falls Police Department.

The suspect was identified quickly. By about 10 p.m., he was arrested for making a terrorist threat, which is a Class 5 felony in South Dakota.

Shortly after, the district let parents know that it was safe for their kids to go to school Monday, and extra deputies would be on duty.

”Those kids are the most important things in our community,” Swenson said, “and we’re going to do what we can to protect them.”

The assault weapon in the post is not the suspect’s. The image came from the internet. There was nothing to indicate the suspect had “any issue in the past” that would lead to this sort of post or make him a threat to society, Swenson said.

Harrisburg High School is not new to shooting threats. In 2015, a student opened fire in the building and shot the principal in the arm.

Swenson says the sort of threat on Sunday night happens about once a year, and it is typically “kids acting irresponsibly.” In other words, while authorities and school officials take the matter seriously, the threat was not deemed serious.

What is gravely serious is the charge of a terrorist threat, Swenson said.

”There’s nothing funny about it,” Swenson said. “You really terrorized 1600 students that go to that high school, and I don’t think that, for most of them, that’s not their intention. They don’t know the magnitude of how social media can be your worst enemy if you use it in the wrong way.”

Prevention of scares like these always come back to parents telling their kids that in no way is conversation about guns or threats ever a laughing matter.

The Harrisburg School District would not comment on this story. On mid-afternoon Monday, parents received an email with an update on the situation:

Dear HSD Families & Staff:

Because we are limited in what information we can legally share, we cannot include much detail regarding an incident that arose last evening other than to say there was a threat on social media made toward the high school. The Harrisburg School District administration has been working with law enforcement. A formalized threat assessment is being completed and an arrest was made. The individual will not be in school for the foreseeable future. Please know, we will continue to work diligently to ensure the safety and security of all Harrisburg stakeholders. Any further questions can be directed to the Lincoln County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Students in Sioux Falls also saw the post. The school district wrote its own email to parents on Monday morning, noting that the post did not originate in Sioux Falls, but officials have received several reports from Sioux Falls students, as the post continues to circulate on social media.

The SFSD is asking parents to encourage their children *not* to continue sharing it. Instead -- students are asked to report the photo to school officials.

“Please encourage your child to not forward the photo to others and if they receive it, report the photo to school officials,” the message said. “As always, do not add more information to the photo to cause more confusion and concern.  The connectedness of today’s students through social media results in both positive and negative interactions.  Please talk with your child about online safety. Thank you for working with us and following the recommendation to “See Something, Say Something.”

Dakota News Now connected with several HHS parents who were aware of the post, but none would commit to interviewing on camera or giving away their identity.

One mother said she reacted initially with “fear,” but “I have faith in the administration and the officers working on it to protect our students.” She is also proud that so many Harrisburg students took the threat seriously and told their parents.

Another mother did not sent her child to HHS on Monday until later in the morning because she had not received word that the suspect was in custody, even though she had received the email the night before from district officials saying it was safe for kids to attend class.

One father said he was not surprised of this incident, and that it is another example of social media bullying he said has been rampant at HHS for several years, and something two of his kids have experienced. One of them transferred from the school.

Swenson was not the Lincoln County Sheriff when the HHS principal shooting occurred seven years ago, but he was prepared when asked the question about what could be done to prevent future mass shootings.

In 14 such incidents at U.S. schools and colleges, 169 people have died in the last 23 years — from 1999′s Columbine High School massacre to the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, this past may. That’s according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.

When asked if legislation such as background checks and making illegal or inaccessible the assault weapons like the one pictured in the HHS student’s Snapchat message on Sunday, Swenson responded:

“I’m very pro Second Amendment. I don’t think any law is going to keep the gun out of the hand of somebody that wants to misuse it, just like if you want to use a vehicle in a crime.

I’ve owned guns my whole life, and I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m speaking for the mass majority of country. So, I wouldn’t be for legislating them. There’s no way that kid could possess that gun legally, or any other gun. You know, the handguns and the AR-15 has the bad reputation because of its appearance, but handguns are used much more frequently, and I don’t think outlawing guns is the answer. I think being responsible gun owners is the correct answer.”

Swenson was then asked if he’d be in favor of guns and assault weapons being more difficult to obtain legally, therefore leaving fewer guns available to attain illegally.

“Methamphetamine is illegal,” Swenson said, “and all the people that want methamphetamine seem to be able to get it. So, it’s just, I understand what you’re saying. I’m just not a proponent of gun control.”

The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has 46 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns, according to a 2018 report by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey. It ranks number one in firearms per capita. The United States also has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate of the world’s most-developed nations.