BARBERTON — A Barberton prosecutor says a Coventry Township woman posted false information on Facebook shortly after a mass shooting in Florida about a gun found at Coventry Middle School, causing Coventry parents to panic.
The woman’s attorney, however, argues the mother of one used Facebook to voice concerns just as people do every day on the popular social media site.
“They have criminalized these posts,” attorney Jeff Laybourne said Thursday during his opening statement in Erin Croghan’s trial in Barberton Municipal Court. “They have criminalized freedom of speech on Facebook.”
Laybourne said the outcome of Croghan’s trial, which pits free speech rights against school-safety concerns, could have a “chilling effect” on “concerned parents and their ability to ask questions.”
Croghan, 37, is charged with inducing panic, a first-degree misdemeanor that carries up to 180 days in jail. Her trial in Judge David Fish’s court is expected to last two days.
Croghan was charged in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and faculty dead. In the two weeks following the shooting, many Northeast Ohio school districts responded to threats of pending gun violence, some found to be credible and others dismissed as online rumors.
Croghan’s comments were found to be false and were among only a few in the Akron area that resulted in criminal charges or school discipline.
The origin of Croghan’s posts dates back to Nov. 2, 2017, when Croghan heard while at the bus stop with her daughter that another student saw a gun at school the day before. Croghan told her daughter’s teacher at Coventry Elementary School what she had heard and asked the teacher to inform her of the resolution.
Assistant Barberton Prosecutor Michelle Banbury said the Coventry school district investigated and determined that no guns were found in any of the schools. They found that students on a bus saw a middle school student with a pellet gun in his front yard as their bus passed, but that he didn’t have the gun in school.
Banbury said Superintendent Lisa Blough called Croghan and told her no gun was found in any school and explained what happened.
More than three months later on the evening of Feb. 20 — less than a week after the Florida shooting — Croghan posted on the Portage Lakes Rocks! Facebook site asking if any parents “became aware that a student brought a gun to school a few months ago.” She said the weapon was a pellet gun but “still could’ve caused harm.” She said she was “just curious if parents were made aware of this past incident.”
Croghan’s post to the closed Facebook site with more than 12,000 members caused a stir among parents, many who said they hadn’t heard about the gun incident.
Tina Marie Norris, the Coventry Middle School principal, was alerted to Croghan’s post and responded on Facebook, saying there had been zero incidents in Coventry involving a weapon brought to school, Banbury said.
“This type of post is why social media is dangerous,” Norris wrote.
Over the next several days, Banbury said, numerous parents called the Coventry schools and district office, asking whether a gun had been found. She said Summit County Sheriff Deputy Brian Breeden visited Croghan and asked her to delete her posts and to stop making new posts because she was causing public alarm. Banbury said Croghan told the deputy she understood a gun was found.
Banbury said she will present 60 exhibits showing Croghan’s Facebook posts about the alleged gun discovery and the reaction to the posts from parents and Coventry residents.
“It simply was a false report that Erin Croghan put out there for attention-seeking behavior,” Banbury said. “I wish I could explain why she did what she did. I don’t have a motive.”
Laybourne, however, told jurors that Banbury must prove that Croghan’s post meets all of the requirements of the inducing panic law. She must have initiated or circulated a warning of a crime knowing the report was false and caused the evacuation of a public building or serious alarm.
Laybourne said Croghan made her original post on a closed Facebook site about an incident that had allegedly happened more than three months prior. He said other parents responding to Croghan’s post gave the phone number to the middle school and talked about an attempted kidnapping from one of the schools, but neither of these parents were charged.
Laybourne questioned whether Croghan knew what she wrote was false and whether what she wrote caused “serious public inconvenience or alarm.”
“The evidence will show the ‘serious public inconvenience or alarm’ were phone calls from parents to administrators who are paid by taxpayers as part of their job to answer phone calls,” Laybourne said.
Croghan’s posts didn’t result in the evacuation or lockdown of a school or the search of students’ lockers, Laybourne said.
“Everyone knew this was not a current, ongoing situation,” he said.
Laybourne said “See something, say something,” has become a regular refrain in schools because of incidents like the Parkland shooting.
Laybourne said he isn’t a big fan of Facebook and doesn’t consider posting to it constantly to be a good use of time. He said many of the posts Croghan made aren’t flattering.
“It’s not about who’s right or wrong, who’s telling the truth or who’s not or who made objectionable posts,” he said. “The only thing this is about is whether the prosecutor can rule out reasonable doubt.”
Norris, the middle school principal, testified Thursday that the assistant principal was off the day after Croghan’s post and she spent her entire day fielding phone calls and emails from concerned parents.
“I had parents significantly worried,” she said.
Norris testified at length about Croghan’s posts and the responses to them. The principal made copies of the posts and provided them to the superintendent, deputies and prosecutors.
“The posts kept getting more outrageous and, frankly, very attacking,” Norris said.
Croghan’s posts included accusations that Norris and other administrators were lying and trying to cover up what happened because they were concerned that — if the information got out — a renewal levy on the November 2017 ballot might fail.
“Would you lie about an incident to cover it up because of a renewal levy?” Banbury asked Norris.
“Absolutely not!” Norris responded.
The trial will resume Friday morning.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.