In the wake of last week’s Florida school shooting, S.C. law enforcement officers and legislators are calling for a new law targeting people, including youth, who threaten schools.
A bill, which won approval from a Senate panel Thursday, would make it a crime to threaten to cause damage, injury or death with a “dangerous weapon or instrument” at a school.
The bill is a response to a trend of troubled youth committing school shootings, said its sponsor, state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston.
The goal is “to try to take kids that are mentally unstable — they’re just angry; they don’t think things through — ... and get a way to stop them” before they hurt others and themselves, she said.
The bill would allow law enforcement to arrest and question someone who, for example, posts a threat to “shoot up” a school on social media. Officers can do that now, but current laws do not adequately fit the crime and carry less severe penalties, the bill’s supporters say.
Under current law, a student who threatens a school sometimes is charged with disturbing schools, a controversial law that also applies to far less serious behaviors, or unlawful communications, according to Jarrod Bruder with the S.C. Sheriff’s Association.
The lack of a clear law addressing school threats could lead to a courtroom debate over which charge is the most appropriate, Bruder said. “At the end of the day, we need to have a statute that squarely and adequately addresses this issue.”
The proposal also creates a serious enough charge that anyone arrested would have to go before a judge who could order a mental health evaluation or other services, Senn said.
The debate on the bill comes as Midlands police have made several arrests for threats against schools in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting last week.
The legislation would make it a misdemeanor to threaten a school with a dangerous weapon or instrument, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and two years in prison. A threat that results in damage to property — also a misdemeanor — would be punishable by up to a $3,000 fine and three years in jail.
A threat resulting in injury or death would be a felony. Offenders would face a fine of up to $5,000 and five years in jail as well as other charges.
The bill now heads to the full Senate Judiciary Committee, where there will be an effort to define a “credible threat.”
That definition is a concern for state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who supports the legislation, but warned lawmakers against “prosecuting children for child’s play.”
“I am on board with the intent of the legislation, but, as you know, we have an issue with school-to-prison pipelines,” he said.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, said the state needs a law “with teeth in it” to address threats. But he questioned how threats would be defined and whether existing laws are sufficient.
Malloy also said the law does not focus on the underlying issues that cause youth to threaten their classmates and school.
“What about that child? There is something going on there that we, in this state, have not done enough.”