Social media threats, explosive device results in local school closures, criminal investigation

In-school instruction was canceled in the San Juan School District on Friday, December 17 out of concern for threatened violence in the schools.

After two separate incidents on December 16, officials closed the schools for the day out of an abundance of caution.

December 20 and 21 were normal days in the San Juan School District, with teachers and students wrapping up the semester and getting ready for the holiday break.

However, the impact after the schools were closed to in-person instruction on Friday, December 17 may just be beginning.

San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws has been authorized by the Seventh District Court to initiate a criminal investigation into the matter.

The filing includes a probable cause statement that provides background information for the investigation. The statement was written by San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy Corey Workman.

Workman states that before December 17, viral videos on the social media site TikTok were “encouraging mass casualty and/or massive property damage to schools nationwide, by either explosive devices or active shooter-type situations.”

Workman reports that on December 16, a teacher at Albert R Lyman Middle School in Blanding noticed a message scratched into the paint at the base of the digital marquee located outside the school that stated, “I am coming for you.”

Later that evening, a custodian discovered what appeared to be a homemade explosive device in a restroom at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek.

Navajo Nation Police Officers responded to the school and collected the homemade device.

The device was crudely built and was determined to be unlikely to explode, but whoever made it put a lot of time and thought into its construction.

Workman writes that the device was three water bottles taped together with a fuse coming out of the top. The bottles had liquid inside of them and smelled like kerosene or lighter fluid.

They were wrapped in tin foil and double bagged in plastic bags from a grocery store. The center bottle had a clock drawn on the top with a time of 12:30.

After consulting with law enforcement officials, school officials closed the 12 schools in the district and students had virtual instruction from home.

School superintendent Ron Nielson said on Friday, “Today is a very troubling day for me. 

“While I don’t have any exact knowledge, I would guess that this is the first time in the history of the San Juan School District that we have had to cancel face-to-face instruction district-wide due to a threat of this nature.”

Nielson added, “The safety of staff and students comes first.”

The County Attorney’s Office is now involved in an investigation that Kendall Laws said may take months to complete.

“We are not just looking for the kid who locally did something incredibly illegal or stupid, but we are also looking at any other parties who encouraged, aided, or facilitated the idea,” said Laws. “That could be the original poster or the forum itself. We are willing to look at it wherever it takes us.

“This may turn into more of a collective effort that reaches far beyond the boundaries of San Juan County.”

The filing states that the investigation will include “terroristic threats, threats against a school, conspiracy to commit terroristic threats, criminal mischief, attempted arson, causing a catastrophe, conspiracy to commit a catastrophe, and the above stated crimes for culpability.”

Schools and districts across the nation responded to the threat in different ways. Some districts closed, while others responded with increased police presence, such as in Grand County.

A student with a gun was arrested at East High School in Salt Lake City. While there were threats in other places, it appears as if the most egregious example in Utah is in the San Juan School District.

“I am incredibly tired of this,” said Laws, referring to threats in the schools. “Other county attorneys in the state say they have threats at their schools on an ongoing basis, but this incident was not a vague, ambiguous threat, but an actual explosive device that was left at a school.”

Laws encourages anyone with information on the incidents to contact law enforcement.

“Kerosene is a different smell,” said Laws. “We hope to find some good ingformation for our investigation.”

TikTok has been the forum for a number of “challenges” to users.

A local school official states that a TikTok challenge in September to destroy school property resulted in damage to several schools in the San Juan School District.

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