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Threats against schools could be punished as felonies, misdemeanors

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - Mar. 7, 2019 at 7:39 a.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A threat against a school, whether real or a hoax, could be charged and punished as a third-degree felony under legislation introduced in the Utah House of Representatives on Wednesday.

HB476, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, would create the crime of threats against schools, which would include preschools, K-12 schools, colleges and universities.

According to the bill, a person who makes a threat against a school in person or by electronic means with either “real intent or as a hoax to commit an offense involving bodily injury, death or substantial property damage and threatens the use of a weapon or hoax weapon of mass destruction" could be charged with a third-degree felony.

Stoddard said the Canyons School District asked him to consider filing legislation after Jordan High School was evacuated in mid-January following a bomb threat, which was unfounded.

The bomb threat was preceded by a week of extra police officers patrolling the school because of undisclosed threats that had been written on a bathroom wall in the school.

"They felt like they didn't have the tools necessary to address a lot of these situations and they come up frequently enough they wanted something to be able to teach kids that this is serious and put a little bit of teeth behind it," Stoddard said.

Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney said the evacuation resulted in lost instructional time and at least $13,000 to activate the district's emergency protocol.

"We hope that this legislation will help us send the message very clearly that threats against schools, both real and hoax, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Haney said.

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School districts are responding to threats against schools on "a weekly basis whether it's online or something written on a bathroom wall," Haney said. Schools have a responsibility to take threats seriously, he said.

While it is important to create specific criminal penalties for threats against schools, Haney said another important provision of HB476 is that it creates a mechanism to seek restitution for costs incurred responding to the threat by government, private businesses, individuals and others.

Stoddard, who is a prosecutor for Murray, said existing code covers terroristic threats, threats of violence or threats of mass destruction, but "in speaking with them (Canyon School District officials), they didn't feel like they had an avenue that was specifically related to schools."

We hope that this legislation will help us send the message very clearly that threats against schools, both real and hoax, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

–Jeff Haney, Canyons School District spokesman

The bill also would establish misdemeanor penalties for threats that prevent the occupancy of a school, facility or school vehicle as well as threats that intimidate or coerce students or employees of the school; or cause an official or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies to take action due to the risk to the school or general public."

Stoddard acknowledged that introducing the bill late in this legislative session makes it less likely it will be considered this year, but it is a conversation worthy of interim study or introducing the bill in the next legislative session, he said.

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