Yes, threatening schools already is illegal. But York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson still has a problem when it comes to keeping them safe.
“It’s just not very much illegal,” he said.
On Monday night, York County Council approved a resolution in support of state lawmakers looking to increase penalties for threatening schools and other publically-owned buildings. A bill on the table now would add to how long someone could be jailed.
“This, while it may not be perfect, is a step in the right direction,” Tolson said.
Law enforcement currently has two main laws for incidents of threatening a school. One is a charge communicating threats by electronic means, carrying “a whopping 30 days in jail” or $500 fine, Tolson said.
“The old line of thinking with that was threatening somebody over the phone,” he said. “It’s really when that law was passed.”
The other charge is for disturbing schools, with a penalty of 90 days in jail.
State lawmakers are considering a law that would carry a prison sentence up to two years and fine up to $2,000 for anyone threatening, getting someone else to threaten, conspiring to threaten or causing damage to a public building with a firearm or dangerous weapon. The law also would require mental evaluation and possible treatment for anyone charged.
Any such incident resulting in bodily injury or death becomes a felony, with imprisonment up to five years and a fine up to $5,000.
“This does give us a little more teeth,” Tolson said. “We do have laws on the books, but I think the message in the laws we have aren’t adequate.”
Longer sentences, Tolson said, mean more opportunities for follow-up.
“When you can sentence for more than a year, a judge can also require probation which is more supervision and those follow-ups,” he said. “The judge can pretty much rule what he wants.”
While all seven York County Council members voted to support the state law change, one member said it doesn’t go far enough.
“I wish it did a little more,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey. “I wish it included a little more because we’re speaking on behalf of our schools. We’re speaking on behalf of our colleges and universities, public facilities.”
The resolution “falls short,” he said, of asking state lawmakers for additional measures to keep guns out of the hands of young people.
“I sit back and I watch some of these national tragedies happen, and everybody wants to see more gun control, more this, more that,” Roddey said. “Whether it’s background checks or increasing the age. And me personally, I would like to see our state senators and our governor support increasing the age to 21 to purchase a firearm.”
Others council members don’t agree with going so far.
“I think the Second Amendment is not a county council discussion, so I’m not going to go there with that,” said Councilman Robert Winkler.
Councilwoman Christi Cox said she doesn’t see the proposed new law as a violation of the Constitutional right to bear arms.
“This basically just gives law enforcement the ability to take stronger direction against anyone who threatens any of our schools,” she said. “It doesn’t have any effect on the Second Amendment, which I’m in full support of. This basically gives you a tool that you don’t have to make sure that our schools are safe.”
Roddey, though, said an age limit and increased background checks are needed. Most 18-year-olds and some 19-year-olds are still in high school, he said. Putting the age limit at 21, he figures, at least makes it illegal for current students to purchase guns.
“I wish it would include some discussion, some measures, that take in account the prevention part,” Roddey said. “Because this only addresses the penalty part, the criminal part, the punishment part, but this says nothing about the prevention when it comes to restricting gun purchases or increasing background checks.”
The councilman believes gun control is a missing piece to the puzzle of protecting public facilities.
“Increasing the penalty part does nothing for the protection for our students and our teachers and our faculty and our staff that work at these facilities,” Roddey said.
York County isn’t immune to school threats. A fifth-grader at York Intermediate School in the fall called in a possible man with a gun at the school, prompting it and two nearby schools into lock down. Several more incidents in York and nearby Lancaster counties happened just in February.
Two Lancaster High School students were arrested after students heard them discussing “shooting up the school.” A Sullivan Middle School student in Rock Hill was charged with disturbing schools after saying he would “bring a firearm to school and shoot students and staff.” A student was arrested for threatening York Middle School on social media.