Teens charged with making terroristic threats after joke about school shooting goes public.
Teen arrested after calling wrong number with prank school threat
Headlines like these are on the news almost every day as the country assesses how to effectively protect students at every level from elementary school through college. In Wisconsin, the legislature passed a law in 2015, Sec. 947.019 entitled Terrorist Threats, which makes it a felony to threaten to cause death or great bodily harm to any person or to damage any persons property if the actor intends to cause an evacuation, public inconvenience, panic or fear, or the interruption of governmental services. Other states have similar laws.
In recent weeks there has been a marked increase of cases where this law is being used to prosecute teens in high school. Adolescents who mistakenly think their words will remain private, may discover that the threats have been blasted all over the internet and that they are now the focus of a criminal investigation. Teens simply blowing off steam or making a joke can find that their words have an unexpected dramatic and negative impact. Some teens are being prosecuted for statements made weeks or months ago as people reevaluate them after the tragic shooting in Florida.
Because of well-documented developmental issues, adolescents are especially apt to say things without thinking carefully about the ramifications. The United States Supreme Court has observed what every parent knows, that teenagers generally have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.(Roper v. Simmons, 2005).
Research shows that adolescents are capable of making rational decisions, but in highly charged situations the more developed emotional center of their brains often wins over the still immature reasoning system. Thus, many of these threats occur in situations where the teen is upset, egged on or attempting to get attention from peers. Under emotionally charged circumstances, kids unwittingly say things that others may perceive more ominously. Educating kids about the horror their peers have experienced from gun violence may diminish such offhand comments but probably won’t eliminate them. Because of their immaturity, teens may continue to say things that sound threatening when they are upset or goofing around.
However, a blanket policy of prosecuting all adolescents who make statements that arguably fit the broad definition of a terrorist threat is not the answer and is dangerous to the health and safety of our teens. Creating hundreds or thousands of convicted felons for statements made in jest will forever diminish their chance to reach their full potential as adults. Employment, education, and housing opportunities will all be restricted, possibly for the rest of their lives, for these adolescents who over time would have matured out of this impulsive stage of life. School expulsions may actually aggravate the problem, by socially isolating teens and potentially provoking a motivation for revenge where none previously existed.
That is not to say that such remarks should be ignored. Encouraging students and adults to report such statements gives school authorities and law enforcement a chance to intervene and assess the risk. The question is how best to intervene and assess the individual student and the issues underlying the statements, rather than overreacting to statements that may not be true threats.
One way would be to develop assessment tools that school and law enforcement can use to judge whether an individual youth poses any real danger. There are many areas of life in which professionals assess risk through interactions with individuals. One example is the highly successful Israeli security program through which travelers are interviewed to assess risk. Surely, talented educational psychologists could develop interview questions to reveal those teens who are at greater risk to act on a threatening statement. Talking with the student and the parents could reveal problems at home or at school that could be resolved so that the student is able to successfully complete the school year instead of being expelled and prosecuted.
We should learn how to separate the serious from the non-serious threat. Doing so would provide more safety to the community and students than the current path followed by too many schools and law enforcement in the wake of the Florida tragedy.