Gap in ‘threat’ law needs to be filled by legislature

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For the last few weeks, the topic of school shootings and how best to prevent them has dominated news coverage and coffee-shop conversation.

It has, once again, become a contentious debate about the Second Amendment — with students who witnessed the horror at their high school in Parkland, Fla., shamelessly propped up as pawns to push anti-gun legislation — instead of meaningful dialogue about root causes and real solutions.

It’s interesting that in all of the air time and ink that has been given to the subject, there’s been no mention of one common-sense tool lawmakers should put in the toolbelt of law enforcers to help stop a school shooting before it happens: make it a felony for a student to threaten to shoot another student or “shoot up the school.”

Like us, you probably believed there was already such a law on the books, but there’s not, District Attorney Tony Buckley pointed out. He knows because he’s had to research it after reports of such activity at Jones County schools, just like across the state and country.

Making a bomb threat is an automatic felony, possession of a weapon at school is a felony and it’s a felony for a student to threaten a teacher or professor. But if a student threatens another student — or the entire student body, for that matter — with gun violence, the only charge that will stick is disturbance of a school. That’s a misdemeanor. And if the offender is, say, 17 years and 11 months old, it would be handled in youth court.

We’re not suggesting there’s a grand conspiracy to protect children who make threats. No, this is simply a case of an oversight in the statutes. It’s something that legislators likely believe is on the books already, since it’s been a hot topic for so long, but it’s not.

“There’s no felony statute, as of now, for threatening a school,” Buckley said. “The law just needs to catch up with what’s going on. This would be a good thing for the legislature to deal with.”

The offense needs to be upgraded to a felony, if for no other reason, so the students can be charged as adults and so the student can be detained while authorities conduct a thorough investigation into the suspect and the threats. It may just prevent a tragedy.

Bomb threats have been going on for years, and most people don’t even take them seriously any more (although that may change here for a while with the disturbing discovery of home-made explosive devices sheriff’s investigators say they made at the residence of Michael Sanchez in the Sharon Community earlier this month). It’s usually a prank to create chaos or to simply get out of class. Even though the threats are rarely if ever real, officials have to take them seriously.

Threats that have proved to be legitimate time and again across the country should be given at least the same legitimacy in the lawbooks as bomb threats. We’re not blaming anyone, just firing a warning shot.