Just one month into the school year and already, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office says it has investigated 17 school threats, at least two of which were deemed credible.
Some of those threats, regardless of how serious they were, could not be investigated and charged as potential felonies, despite new, stricter laws.
New laws passed under the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act toughened the punishment for making a written or electronic threat to commit a shooting or other act of terror against a school.
But, investigators are also finding a gap in the law does not address verbal threats against a school, even if the intent is the same as if it were a written threat.
Now, prosecutors and law enforcement are hopeful the law could address that in the future.
“When the senate bill came out last year and I saw that it made the written threats a second degree felony, I thought 'wow that’s great. We’ve really got some teeth to this’,” explained St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Capt. Brian Hester.
But early in the school year, Hester noticed a weakness in the law.
“When we started investigating our first few cases of school threats this school year, none of them were written and electronic. They were statements made, whether they were on a bus, or to a teacher or to another student or something that was overheard,” Hester said.
That included the following threat, as described by Hester: “It was a student on a bus who was making threats that he was going to blow up the school, blow up the bus, blow up other kids ... It really made the students on the bus, the bus driver and other people very nervous and in fear."
But since the threat was verbal, Hester explained the student would likely, at most, face a misdemeanor.
“If we were to revisit [the law] I would like us to take into account the verbal threats as well,” Hester said.
Some parents agree.
Juanita Sosa has three daughters in school.
"If it's a text, written, verbally, however they say it. it should be a felony,” Sosa said.
But Hester explained it is not all about punishing every threat the same. Some threats are made as jokes, and while still serious, Hester says prosecutors would not always pursue felony charges.
“Our goal is not to ruin a child’s life or put a child into the judicial system over a fight on the play ground or an angry statement that was made,” Hester said.
It is about having all the tools possible to go after the most serious threats, regardless of how they are made.
Prosecutors explained verbal threats have long been tough to punish, saying there are very few crimes that punish just what people say.
Hester said regardless of how a threat is made, deputies still make home visits and recommend intervention and diversionary programs.