WINTHROP — Was it a threatening statement by a high school student posted on social media or an ill-advised joke?
That’s the question police and administrators of Winthrop High School asked themselves early Wednesday morning, the first day of the school year, when they learned that a senior had written a strange post on Instagram the day before.
The student had taken a picture of himself and shared it on Instagram, along with what appeared to be a typed-out question: “Who is ready to die in school.”
Underneath the question, he gave his Instagram followers a chance to respond with one of two answers: “Me” or “Not Me (Weirdo).”
Ultimately, authorities found the statement menacing and charged its author with terrorizing, a misdemeanor. The student, an 18-year-old who lives in Monmouth, was asked by officials to leave school and then picked up by his parents. The district now has ended the agreement that allowed him to attend Winthrop schools.
But the student, Kane Gould, and his family are pushing back against the suggestion that he intended to threaten anyone with his social media post. Rather, they say that he was using gallows humor to react the extremely hot weather and the beginning of the school year, an occasion that students often approach with a mix of excitement and dread.
They acknowledge that the post could be seen as ominous, but say the poor decision shouldn’t permanently mark Gould’s record as he tries to improve his grades and apply for college.
“I didn’t mean it any way how they’re taking it,” Gould said in a phone interview Wednesday, along with his parents. “I meant it as a joke and it was blown out of proportions. … Everyone was complaining about the heat and the first day of school.”
While police and school administrators declined to speak about the specific content of Gould’s post, they also argued that it couldn’t be divorced from the context in which it was made.
Last winter, schools across the country received a flurry of threats after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
In the weeks afterward, at least a dozen Maine schools were threatened with violence, and at least 13 students were charged with terrorizing, according to the Portland Press Herald. Another student went on a shooting rampage in May in Santa Fe, Texas. Just this week, a high school in Fenton, Michigan, received a bomb threat, news outlets have reported.
“I’ll say the social media post, probably due to our current times, it was inappropriate, it was threatening,” said Ryan Frost, chief of the Winthrop Police Department. “… We have to view it by the totality of circumstances. It’s not just that sole post.”
After discovering the social media post Wednesday morning, the school staff took the 18-year-old to a secluded area away from other students and police determined that he didn’t have any weapons, Frost said. The officers already were visiting the school on the first day of classes.
Police summoned Gould on the charge of terrorizing and continue to investigate the case. They have submitted the matter to the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office, which will provide “another set of eyes,” Frost said.
Upon hearing that Gould’s parents disputed the outcome of the case, Frost also praised them for “stepping up and working with their child.”
Winthrop school officials referred to the post to police after learning about it on Wednesday morning, said Cornelia Brown, interim superintendent of the Winthrop School Department.
“If I am at all concerned about safety, I go to measures that would protect students and staff,” Brown said. “That is a result of being a superintendent for a long time and going through crisis situations. That’s the current climate that we’re in, like it or not. … (We) look at safety much differently than we did even five years ago. I do not dismiss things like this.”
Although Gould lives outside the school district, he has attended Winthrop High School since last year. But the arrangement that allowed him to do so — what’s called ” a superintendent’s agreement” — now has been rescinded, Brown said.
Instagram is a web-based program that allows users to share photos and videos with each other. When Gould originally wrote his post Tuesday morning, he set it to expire after a certain period of time.
He used a special feature that allows users to create surveys for their followers. The post was seen by at least 226 users, according to a screen shot of the post he sent to the Kennebec Journal.
After school administrators asked him to leave Wednesday, he wrote another Instagram post that argued they were taking his post out of context and were not interested in his explanation.
Gould’s family recognizes that his social media post could be perceived as threatening, and his father, Clint Gould, said he understands why the School Department would need to scrutinize it.
But they also insist that the post was meant to be humorous and shouldn’t affect his future in a lasting way. The family now is seeking a lawyer to help them fight the misdemeanor charge.
“He would never hurt anyone,” Clint Gould said about his son. “He definitely isn’t a school shooter type. … Obviously, the school has to check something like that out. I would be mad if they didn’t check something like that out. But he wasn’t threatening anybody. Then for him to get charged, it’s just, like, ludicrous. He’s trying to get into college. This isn’t going to help.”
Gould hopes to attend University of Maine next year in Orono, but he said he needed to focus on his classes this fall after doing poorly last year following the death of a family member. He also was excited to see friends after summer vacation and planning to play baseball this spring.
“He’s a good student,” said Gould’s mother, Allison Michaud. “He’s never been in trouble.”