Danielle Harkins, a Pinellas, Florida teacher, was arrested on Tuesday after she allegedly aided teenagers in injuring themselves in a religious ritual, according to news reports. Harkins, 35, was arrested by Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office officials on charges of child abuse and aggravated child abuse, sources indicate. She reportedly remains incarcerated in lieu of $55,000 bond. It is not clear whether she has retained a private criminal defense lawyer.
Harkins is a teacher at Lealman and Asian Neighborhood Family Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. The organization’s goal, according to its’ website, is to “provide services and support to meet the needs of children and families in the Lealman and Asian communities.” The website says that the center provides language and computer classes as well as childcare. Harkins reportedly teaches literacy at the center, and the ages of the alleged victims suggest that her students were children.
“We had no suspicion of any of this. We do everything we can to know our employees,” the center’s administrator was quoted as saying in local news. Harkins has reportedly been suspended without pay in light of the allegations. She worked at the center for nearly five years before she was arrested, sources indicate. It is not clear whether she has commented on the incident.
According to news reports, the alleged offending ritual took place at a pier outside of school grounds. There were seven victims, all of whom were allegedly former students of Harkins at the Center. Harkins is accused of arranging to meet the group at the pier outside of school hours in order to conduct the ritual. The reason that Harkins allegedly gave the group for wanting to meet with them is not known.
“Obviously, it’s very strange. The motivations for the ritual are very unknown to us,” a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson was quoted as saying. It is not clear whether Harkins’ alleged actions were associated with a religion, but the teacher is accused of instructing and aiding her former students in hurting themselves in order to release “evil spirits” from their bodies. She allegedly told them that they had to cut their skin to let the spirits out, then burn the wounds in order to keep the demons from coming back.
At least two teenagers were purportedly injured in the ritual. One allegedly suffered from a cut on her neck from a broken glass bottle, and Harkins is accused of pressing a hot key to the cut, cauterizing it. The other injured teenager alleged that Harkins doused his hand in perfume, then set it on fire. She allegedly put perfume on the hand because she was initially unable to ignite it due to wind. The names and ages of the teenagers have not been released. The injuries were apparently non-life threatening, though the boy whose hand was covered in perfume purportedly suffered from second-degree burns.
Investigators started looking into to the incident when a 16-year-old who attended the ritual texted a friend about the ritual. The friend, also a teen, told the 16-year-old’s parents, who called the police. The teenagers who allegedly attended the ritual were not forthcoming with details during interviews with detectives, and none have divulged any details to the press.