She told the teens they were possessed by evil spirits and they needed to cut themselves to release the evil spirits and then burn their wounds to prevent the spirits’ return.
Danielle Harkins, 35, and a group of Asian teens that she once taught English at Lealman and Asian Neighborhood Family Center gathered around before dusk around a small fire near the St. Petersburg Pier to perform the ritual. Two of the teens were injured. Some kids got cut and burned, police said. Later, Harkins was arrested, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
"Obviously, it's very strange," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. "The motivations for the ritual are very unknown to us."
In interviews with detectives, the teens were recalcitrant, but some details did emerge. The incident was investigated after one of the teens sent a text message to a friend. The friend told the boy’s parents and they called police.
Harkins is alleged to have held a lighter to one teen's hand. Wind blew the flame out, police said, which prompted her to douse his hand in perfume and set it on fire. The boy suffered second-degree burns, according to police.
A 17 year old who attended the gathering, declined to talk about what happened , according to the Times.
"I'm okay," he said. "I'm fine. All I know is she's in custody."
Harkins was suspended without pay from the family center where she has worked more than four years, said Carolyn Chance, the center's administrator.
"We had no suspicion of any of this," Chance said. "We do everything we can to know our employees."
None of the teens were currently participating in any programs at the center, Chance said. As a literacy specialist, Harkins taught reading and writing skills at the facility.
Harkins, who was recently divorced and has a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son, was the defendant in a sexual violence injunction that was dismissed in January, according to the Times. In August, she filed a domestic violence injunction against her husband. The injunction request was also dismissed.
Harkins' next-door neighbor for the past four years, Lisa Cope, said the last time she saw her, Harkins had taken an interest in extreme religious beliefs.
"She was my friend," Cope told the paper. "She cried on my shoulder when she and her husband were getting a divorce."
Cope indicated she had no knowledge of her neighbor's apparently new and definitely bizarre religious interest.
"I don't know where she got the whole demon idea," she said. "Who knows what makes people think those things?"
Harkins was booked in jail Tuesday morning on child abuse charges in connection with the bizarre ritual. She was held in jail Tuesday night on $55,000 bail.