By Holly Crocco
Following weeks of demands for action from parents and residents from Carmel, Brewster and all throughout Putnam, county government responded to questions and concerns surrounding recent threats of violence against local school districts, including multiple videos that appeared on social media back in February that were created by three Carmel High School students that used horrific racist language, simulated a school shooting and threatened other violence.
“The Putnam County Legislature acknowledges and understands that the TikTok incident which occurred several weeks ago has had a profound effect on you, your children, and many residents – not just within the Carmel Central School District, but throughout the county,” Legislator Ginny Nacerino, R-Patterson, chairwoman of the Protective Services Committee, told parents at the April 17 committee meeting.
“It was abhorrent and deplorable,” she said of the creation of such videos. “This is not who we are in Putnam County and we will not let this matter define us.”
However, Nacerino noted, “While the Legislature is sensitive to the issues, we have no vested authority over outside municipalities such as school districts, and we are not law enforcement.”
While rumors have circulated over social media in the nine weeks since the TikTok videos surfaced, law enforcement remained silent – publicly, at least.
However, during last week’s meeting, Sheriff Kevin McConville confirmed that his department was called to the district in February to evaluate the vides and, working with district staff, assessed the threat and identified and initiated any and all potential safety measures. He said all information developed and facts available at that time led to the conclusion that no viable threat was presented.
“The development of an attack plan has to be determined to see if the individual or individuals have that capability or thought process,” said McConville. “The ability to carry out that threat, including the possession and accessibility to weapons, is a factor that is considered.”
An investigation also concluded that the students did not have access to firearms, and that no New York State criminal statutes had been violated, according to the sheriff. Thus, there was no lawful basis for arrest.
McConville said the three juveniles sough to develop a Fort Night-type video combat game, wherein electronically-simulated game characters engage in battles in a school simulated to be the George Fischer Middle School.
“The students thought they would make money and be funny in this particular instance,” he said. “The students denied that any of them intended to cause alarm or harm to any students at any time, and they were just experimenting with making a video game.”
McConville acknowledged that the videos “certainly feature hateful speech, abhorrent racist verbiage, and depict a battle between fictional characters in an empty school.”
“All of the alarming, offending and threatening conduct, however, exclusively occurs within the game and associated videos,” he said. “From the characters to the school identified as George Fischer Middle School, to the verbal speech content, all were artificially, electronically created using various applications and artificial intelligence in the specific context inside the game.”
While “only the Carmel Central School District gaming page was posted online,” the sheriff said a group text featuring the videos was sent to 19 people using an application known as Discord. He said there was no intent to alarm or threaten anyone, and that the students possessed no self-awareness that their video game could be seen as threatening.
“There was no evidence of a plan to attack this or any other school, or evidence suggesting any intent or desire to cause fear or intimidation,” said McConville. “Our investigation revealed no evidence that steps had been taken by these individuals to plan or carry out an attack.”
Since criminal charges were deemed inappropriate, the incident remains a school matter.
District Attorney Robert Tendy said his office also evaluated the language, content, context, intent, to whom the videos were sent and how, the intentions and motivations of the students who made them, the targeted audience, and more.
“What went into the decision regarding whether or not to arrest the students had to do with the law and our state, and nothing else,” he said. “We concluded that, based on all the surrounding facts and circumstances that went into the making of the videos and the manner in which they appeared on social media for all to see, we concluded that there was no violation of penal law of the State of New York.
“Were the statements disgusting, racist and abhorrent? Yes. But does not mean a crime was committed,” continued Tendy. “It happened because of three really stupid kids. And I had no grounds to arrest them. I’m glad that I don’t, frankly. I really am. They are being appropriately disciplined.”
Kent resident Linda Harris said that, while she’s glad to hear the county speaking out now, she was disgusted at the most recent full Legislature meeting when parents were told their concerns had to wait two weeks until the Physical Services Committee meeting, since the matter wasn’t on that night’s agenda.
“Pivot from your agenda when the constituents you represent and work for demand your attention, to save lives,” she said. “Pivot from seeking to be the big dog in the room and show some empathy for parents pleading for safety in schools. Pivot from telling us you’re not racists, and show us by taking a moment to listen to the fears and concerns of parents who do not want their children martyred because they were shot by a depraved mass murderer.”
Abigail Lyons, who has children in the Carmel Central Schools, also said she was disappointed at the last meeting.
“As a black mother standing in front of you, to be told it wasn’t the time or place to talk about these incidents when I had waited weeks… I just wanted to have the answers that you guys provided today,” she said.
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, D-Philipstown, chastised her colleagues for “shooting down” her previous recommendation to form a commission to address race relations and other issues of the like.
“Are we going to consider a Human Rights Commission again?” she asked. “Because it could address this very thing… I would like this Legislature to establish a Human Rights Commission.”