LEXINGTON, S.C. (WIS) - Less than three months into the 2019-2020 school year, 15 students across Lexington County have been arrested and charged for making threats at school.
During the same time period last year, that number was three.
The threats come from students who span all ages, demographics and socioeconomic statuses. Some of the youngest offenders are just 12 years old.
Last year, 11th Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard said his office saw four cases of students being charged under the state’s school threats statute.
So far this year, his office has seen 40 cases.
“There’s just this genuine concern on behalf of school officials and law enforcement that they don’t want to see a tragedy in our schools like we see in other parts of the country,” he said. “So any threats being made, even if it appears to be a threat that can’t be carried out, they’re taking them seriously and they’re bringing charges.”
Current state statute Section 16-17-425 addresses student threats and reads as follows:
(A) It is unlawful for a student of a school or college in this State to make threats to take the life of or to inflict bodily harm upon another by using any form of communication whatsoever.
(B) Nothing contained in this section may be construed to repeal, replace, or preclude application of any other criminal statute.
The law was amended to include “any form of communication whatsoever,” to allow law enforcement agencies to charge students based on threats made online.
“Kids being kids, they say a lot of things they shouldn’t say,” Hubbard said. “Kids are clearly notorious for not thinking when they speak, but a lot of our cases are verbal: ‘I’m going to shoot you, I’m going to hurt you, I’m going to kill you.’ Sometimes they say these things without saying why or how, so we evaluate all of that.”
The way the law is written, combined with law enforcement’s aggressive approach, is why Hubbard believes his office has seen a dramatic rise in the number of school threat cases. About half are taken from family court into the county’s diversionary program, which Hubbard touts as one of the best in the state. He also said the recidivism rate is low.
However, Hubbard said his office has also seen its fair share of very serious threats.
“Some are so serious that I’ve gone to family court to make sure these kids are detained, that they aren’t let back out," Hubbard said. "And while they’re having their mental health assessment that they’re not back out in the school and that they are prosecuted to the fullest.”
Hubbard said a fear exists within schools and among law enforcement officials as news of school shootings becomes more prevalent.
“There are a lot of kids who maybe three years ago would have been prosecuted under the old statute of disturbing schools, where they were looking at 90 days. And in many cases, schools may have felt comfortable enough not to call in law enforcement,” Hubbard said. “But right now I think there’s an air of fear that if they don’t aggressively pursue these cases and charges some bad kid is going to slip through the crack and change a lot of people’s lives by hurting other students and teachers.”
When a case is brought to his office, there are several factors weighed before deciding what avenue to pursue.
“We look at whether they have the means or access to weapons, we look at prior disciplinary actions -- which is usually indicative of future behavior -- and we also get a mental assessment on these kids to determine if they have mental health issues or anger issues,” Hubbard explained.
In many cases, Hubbard said students are caught making some kind of verbal threat, whether it be loudly or under their breath. He hopes it will provoke a conversation between parents and their children about the consequences.
“If you’re having a bad day or you’re just joking around and you make some comment about blowing up the school, you’re going to get arrested,” he said. “You’re going to be pulled out of school, you could face suspension, you could face expulsion and that can be on your record, your school transcripts when you try to go to a college. And then you’re in the criminal justice system and it moves slow. The school is going to wait for us to make a determination, meanwhile your fellow students are moving on and you won’t be.”
Concerns over too many students falling under this law led to the creation of Senate Bill 276. It passed the Senate during the last legislative session and will move onto the House when the legislature reconvenes in 2020.
The bill aims to bring a tier system to the current school threat statute.
Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington County) is a supporter of the bill.
“You know how kids are, they could say something and not really mean it,” Shealy said. “It separates those penalties so it could be handled as a school violation or it could be a criminal violation.”
Shealy said the way the current law is written is too vague. No penalty is outlined in the statute, meaning a charge of school threats is a misdemeanor that carries a 10 year maximum sentence.
“It just left it too broad,” she said. “What kind of threat? Did you actually bring a gun to school and threaten someone or did you say something on Facebook last night?”
She said part of the problem is teachers that are unable to control the classroom, leaving them no option but to call the school’s resource officer.
“Teachers have so little opportunity to correct students, they have no control of the classroom now,” she said. “Somebody has to have some authority so when they have these threats, they call the SRO and what does the SRO have to do? They have to arrest the student.”
In at least two of the cases investigated by the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department this school year, there were weapons found on the student accused of making the threats.
According to incident reports, a deputy discovered a black, 9-inch switchblade-style knife in a bookbag of a student at Sandhills Middle School in September. In another case, a deputy found a “steak knife” surrendered to a teacher by a student accused of threatening others.
According to the South Carolina Department of Education, in the 2018-19 school year, schools in the state reported 1,066 weapons. That’s an increase of about 250 from the 2017-2018 school year. Sixty percent of the weapons reported were knives.
According to the department, 87 weapons were reported found within Richland School District Two last year. Richland School District One reported 51 weapons found. Districts with the highest number of weapons based on enrollment are: Allendale School District, Hampton 2, Florence 3, Clarendon 2 and Richland 2.