Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Officials responded passively to death threat at Tarpon Springs High

On the morning of Sept. 4, an irate man called Tarpon Springs High School and told the secretary he was going to kill the principal. And yes, he said, he was coming to the school to do it.

Was he serious? Was he armed? There was no way to tell.

The response: Principal James Joyer quickly stopped efforts by a school resource officer to trace the potential attacker by phone. And the officer, a member of the Tarpon Springs Police Department, complied.

The decision not to act, according to police reports, was related to a "personal" issue involving Joyer, the caller and a woman both of them knew. But it is unclear whether Joyer and the caller knew each other.

Days passed before police circled back to try to identify the caller, finally reaching him at the phone number he had used to make the threat. Edward S. Ecker, a 56-year-old St. Petersburg man, was calmer at that point, and a police check of crime databases concluded he had no criminal record. Officers put the matter to rest.

Their records check, however, was in error, and they learned this week from the Tampa Bay Times that Ecker served two years of probation in North Carolina for a 2007 attack that Chapel Hill police described as "assault by strangulation" on a woman.

On the day of the threat at Tarpon Springs High, no one summoned extra officers. The school was never placed on "lockdown," a state where students and staff hunker down in locked rooms. No one called for a "lockout," where normal operations continue but no one leaves and the school's entrances are secured.

Officers never made an effort to find Ecker or talk to him face-to-face. They never left a voicemail message either.

Ecker's threat never turned into action. But after inquiries by the Times this week, police and school district officials acknowledged that the response — given the heightened awareness around school massacres in recent years — probably warranted more urgent action to protect the 1,422 students and 112 staff members at the high school.

Asked what would have happened if Ecker had carried out his threat, Tarpon Springs police spokesman Maj. Jeffrey Young initially responded: "We can 'what if' all day long."

He said there was no "imminent threat" and called the incident a "harassing phone call."

But later this week, after receiving new information about Ecker's background, the department sat down to critique its response to the threat. The exercise included Young; police Chief Robert Kochen; Cpl. Taurean Mathis, one of the school resource officers who handled the incident; and Sgt. Frank Ruggiero, Mathis' supervisor. Mathis was recognized in 2011 as the School Resource Officer of the Year in Pinellas County.

"We should've been more direct," Kochen said in an interview after the critique. He cited a "communication breakdown on our part and the administration's part."

Said Young: "Do we think a lockout should've been done? Probably."

No one within the Tarpon Springs Police Department will face any disciplinary action, Young said.

And neither will principal Joyer, who made the decision to not call for a lockdown or a lockout.

Pinellas County school spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the district "did not feel it was necessary to pursue any disciplinary action against principal Joyer."

She added: "This is going to be a learning opportunity." Every school has its own plan for handling crises, and the reaction is based on each situation, she said. "In this particular situation, it may have been appropriate for the school to go into a lockout."

Reached by phone, Joyer declined to comment and directed all questions to the district.

Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert who has testified before Congress four times, called the reaction to the Sept. 4 threat "disappointing and disgusting."

"It's quite concerning the delay and casual approach to this in a post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook world," he said, referring to two notorious mass shootings at schools.

Trump said the threat warranted much more follow-through.

"Given the fact that they had that information on a silver platter, they should've gone out and made one-on-one contact," he said.

Young, the police spokesman, said he advised the two school resource officers on Sept. 11 to follow up on the caller "just to make everyone feel better that we tried to make contact with this individual."

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo said he received about five calls from upset Tarpon Springs High teachers who have children at the school.

"There really isn't any evidence for us to get involved because we couldn't really say that our members were in danger," he said. "Had a teacher made a similar mistake, it would've been handled differently."

On the day of the incident, the other school resource officer, Ryan Thiel, quickly tracked the phone number used to make the threat and called it, according to a police report. The call went directly to voicemail. A greeting revealed that the number belonged to an Edward Ecker of Simple Sailing.

Ecker is listed in state corporation records as the registered agent of Simple Sailing Charters. His name and photo are on the homepage of Simple Sailing's website.

Thiel checked the phone number in the Tarpon Springs police system, but it was not connected to an address. Young said he did not know if either school resource officer tried searching the Internet.

An officer tried calling the number again on Sept. 8, after the Labor Day weekend. On Sept. 11, Ecker finally answered Mathis' call.

Mathis said that Ecker initially denied that he called the high school the week before. But after Mathis told him he was not interested in prosecuting a case, Ecker, according to a report, admitted to calling "because of personal issues between his wife and the principal."

Young said there was no criminal charge that applied to the situation, aside from stalking, if Ecker had called Joyer again.

Mathis ran a national background check, but Ecker's criminal history in North Carolina did not appear. Young said the department had just received a new system that does not simultaneously conduct in-state and out-of-state searches.

When reached by the Times, Ecker, who is listed as a real estate agent with Re/Max, would not admit calling the school on Sept. 4 and threatening the principal. But he scathingly insulted Joyer.

Ecker said Mathis' police report was wrong in saying that he had a wife. The Times could not find recent marriage records for Ecker.

"He hurt a friend of mine," Ecker said of Joyer, without elaborating. Ecker said he has never met Joyer.

The conflict may have been an issue between adults, "but it was brought to the school," said Trump, the safety expert. "Nobody wants to see the children of that school caught in the crossfire in a conflict between the principal and a person from the outside."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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