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Tough punishment, and a lesson, for Northeast High senior who sent clown photo as a joke

 
Luke Boswell, an 18-year-old Northeast High senior in the school's Academy of Information Technology, created an image of a clown hiding behind a tree in the courtyard of his school as a joke. He tweeted out the photo to share with friends (via Twitter).
Luke Boswell, an 18-year-old Northeast High senior in the school's Academy of Information Technology, created an image of a clown hiding behind a tree in the courtyard of his school as a joke. He tweeted out the photo to share with friends (via Twitter).
Published Oct. 6, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Inspiration struck Luke Boswell as he was working toward his Adobe Photoshop certification at Northeast High.

His classmates in the school's Academy of Information Technology program were chatting Monday about their fears of clowns, so Boswell, an 18-year-old senior, went out to the courtyard and snapped a photo with his smart phone. He came back inside, uploaded the photo, searched for an image of a clown on Google, and superimposed the clown behind a tree with the school as a backdrop as a joke.

With Halloween just weeks away, and after a Saturday night out at Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream, Boswell wanted to share his handiwork with his friends. He tweeted the photo with the caption "Today at Nehi: (when you see it)."

Boswell didn't know it at the time, but his tweet was part of a one-day wave that helped bring a nationwide scare over predatory clowns to St. Petersburg. It racked up 240 retweets. And, while it contained no threatening language, it was reposted during a 24-hour period when law enforcement officers in Pinellas and Pasco counties were dealing with serious clown-related threats on social media.

A 12-year-old Pasco student was arrested Tuesday after using the account @clouning_around to say he was "going to kill kids" at his middle school. At the same time, St. Petersburg Police were dealing with rumors and clown-themed social media threats at several campuses saying someone was going to "shoot up" a school.

So, what started as an innocent joke ended up spooking students and dozens of parents, who flooded schools and police with calls.

Boswell's punishment? A one-day in-school suspension served Wednesday, which subsequently kicked him off homecoming court.

"When I did this, I did not believe this would cause such disruption to the campus, faculty, and parents," Boswell wrote in an online petition created by his older sister called Justice for Luke. "If I could take this back, I would in a heartbeat."

Luke's mother, Angie Boswell, said her son was unaware of the national phenomenon. Between school and work as a cashier at Publix, she said he has no time to follow news.

"I just don't want my son to be that culprit that might've stirred up whatever might be going on at these schools," said Angie, who describes her son as funny, artistic, sweet and loving. "It didn't have weapons, it didn't have anything that emerged into this social media chaos."

She added: "He posted one photo, one time only, ever. And it escalated into a huge ordeal."

The punishment was the first of Luke Boswell's school career, according to his mother, but it was a gut punch. Angie Boswell is a proud alumna of Northeast High, and both of her children — including her 20-year-old daughter and 2014 Northeast graduate, Lauren Boswell, the creator of Luke's petition — were voted onto homecoming court.

She said she respects the school's decision and the principal, Kevin Hendrick, but feels the punishment for her son's first offense was harsh. She said her son wrote a detailed apology to Hendrick Tuesday night.

Reached Wednesday, Hendrick said he could not comment on an individual student or discipline, but did say the school has received 30 to 40 phone calls from parents concerned about clown rumors. He also declined to discuss the role of the teacher in the sixth-period class where the photo was made.

"I've spent the good portion of two days addressing rumors," Hendrick said.

As a principal, he said, it's a balancing act to give out accurate information without causing hysteria.

"You try to use everything as teachable moments not just for students but for the school at large," he said.

Angie Boswell, 42, who lives in St. Petersburg and works with social media as a side business, said she's learned a lesson, too.

"It's a lesson that my son has learned, that I've also learned," Angie Boswell said. "When there's so much controversy going on on that specific topic, the timing was just wrong."

She added, "I hope he gets an A on this photoshop."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.