A St. Petersburg teacher has been arrested in a case involving former students and a ritual involving cutting their bodies to release "evil spirits," police said.
Danielle Harkins, 35, told teenagers they had evil spirits in their bodies, and she wanted to get them out, police said. Harkins was able persuade two former students to follow through with a ritual ceremony, police said.
Harkins was charged with aggravated battery and child abuse and was being held at the Pinellas County Jail on $55,000 bail.
Harkins met and tutored the students while serving as a literacy mentor at the Lealman and Asian Learning Center in St. Petersburg.
Investigators said Harkins was at The Pier on Saturday with seven former students when she told a 16- and 17-year-old to take part in a ritual based on her religious beliefs.
"Apparently, there was some sort of ritual taking place where she was directing teenagers to cut themselves to release demons from their bodies," said Sgt. Mike Puetz of the St. Petersburg Police Department, "and at some point (she would cauterize) the wound by using a heated key or applying fire to the skin to close the wound to keep the evil spirits from getting back."
Harkins was arrested after one of her former students told his father what happened Saturday, investigators said.
Investigators said they've spoken to Harkins, but she didn't spell out what type of religion would require such drastic measures.
"She hasn't informed us exactly what she was trying to accomplish with this," Puetz said.
Police want to know if there are other victims.
"One of the things we are looking at is whether or not there was any other past events similar to this," Puetz said. "At this point we don't have any indication of that, but that is one of the aspects of the investigation we will be doing."
The director of the learning center said Harkins has been suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case.