State Lawmaker Looks To Give Prosecutors More Latitude To Press Charges in School Threat Cases

Sen. Susan Lee’s proposal also decreases maximum punishment for threatening adults


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Sen. Susan Lee

Via Susan Lee

Following a string of school lockdowns and evacuations, state Sen. Susan Lee of Montgomery County wants to knock down obstacles to prosecuting threats of mass violence against students and others.

Lee last week introduced a bill to eliminate a requirement that prosecutors demonstrate the subjects of a threat were placed in fear or had to evacuate or take shelter. The legislation would also decrease the maximum prison sentence in these cases, unless the victims are minors.

Lee said flaws in the current state criminal code have come to the forefront with the wave of threats that have been made against schools since the fatal shooting of 17 people at a Parkland, Florida, high school.

“[The threats] create a lot of confusion and fear and anxiety, not just with students and teachers and school personnel, but with parents, too. And with law enforcement, because every threat has to be investigated,” Lee, a Democrat from Bethesda, said.

In a single day last month, both Walter Johnson and Winston Churchill high schools had to be evacuated because of bomb threats that police later determined were unfounded. An unsubstantiated threat about an explosive device at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington forced a lockdown earlier this month.

Police handled threats at about a dozen schools in Montgomery County on Feb. 16 alone and earlier this month issued a public message about the uptick in emails, phone calls and social media posts that had sparked concerns about student safety.

Lee, who serves on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said her legislation comes at the request of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, which expressed frustration at the difficulty in charging people with threatening mass violence.

Victims in these cases aren’t always aware of threats against them, so Lee’s bill would make it possible to prosecute even if they aren’t in-the-know. Her proposal would also lower the maximum prison sentence from 10 to five years for threatening mass violence against adults, but leave it at 10 years for cases involving minors. 

Lee’s chief of staff, Michael Lore, explained that she’s recommended this change because she thinks those who target children should face harsher consequences.

At the same time, Lee reasoned that making a threat against a school should not be penalized more severely than actually bringing a gun to school, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, Lore said.

Lee’s bill would also scrap a legal distinction between carrying handguns and other firearms into a school building. Currently, bringing a firearm or a knife into a school is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum sentence of three years of incarceration. Lore said Lee wants to treat firearms and handguns alike by allowing judges to impose up to 10-year sentences in these cases, although they would have discretion to hand down less stringent punishments.

Lee said she hopes by giving prosecutors more flexibility in threat cases, her bill will act as a deterrent to committing the offense in the first place.

The Winston Churchill High School graduate said she’s dismayed by the shadow that violent acts such as the Parkland shooting have cast over her school and others.

“No parent should have to send their child to school and worry about them getting killed or injured,” Lee said. “And no teacher should have to learn how to use a gun.”

Her bill is scheduled for a Thursday hearing in the judiciary committee. The Montgomery County school board will not be able to take a position on the legislation until March 22, so it will not submit testimony in time for the hearing, according to a legislative aide.

Representatives of the state’s attorneys’ association and the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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