Since the February 14, 2018 shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, threats of violence against schools have been on the rise in the Capital Region and throughout upstate New York. While these threats have been found to be “copycat” bids for attention that did not represent a serious threat, some threats are taken seriously by the police.
While most threats are made by students at the schools they target, some are made by outsiders. Anyone found to have made such a threat will typically be arrested for terroristic threatening – a felony in New York. More often than not, however, a juvenile will ultimately be convicted of a misdemeanor such as falsely reporting an incident.
Below are only a few examples of the threats made against upstate New York middle schools and high schools since the Parkland shooting:
- On February 18, 2018, a 21-year old man was charged with making a terroristic threat against Franklin Central School.
- On February 21, 2018, a 14-year-old student texted a photo of a rifle to a classmate and threatened to shoot up St. Regis Falls Central School.
- On the weekend of February 24-25, 2018, a threat was made on Snapchat against Gloversville Middle School.
- On February 26, 2018, a 14-year-old was arrested for threatening to shoot several students at Corinth Central School, including his ex-girlfriend.
- On March 7, 2018, four juvenile were arrested for making a series of threats against Jarvis Middle School.
- On March 21, 2018, a 14-year-old student was arrested for making threats against Bethlehem Central Middle School.
- On March 21, 2018, 13-year-old student threatened to shoot up Galway Central School in two social media posts.
All told, more than 40 reported or rumoured threats of violence have been directed against schools in upstate New York in only the first few weeks after the Parkland shooting.
What the Law Says
New York state’s current terroristic threatening statute provides as follows:
- A person is guilty of making a terroristic threat when with intent
to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a
unit of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of
a unit of government by murder, assassination or kidnapping, he or she
threatens to commit or cause to be committed a specified offense and
thereby causes a reasonable expectation or fear of the imminent
commission of such offense.
2. It shall be no defense to a prosecution pursuant to this section
that the defendant did not have the intent or capability of committing
the specified offense or that the threat was not made to a person who
was a subject thereof.
Despite the statute’s harsh language, officials continue to complain that many threats simply do not meet the threshold for a successful prosecution, thereby paving the way for a reduction in the seriousness of the charge or an outright acquittal.
Purpose of the Law
The purpose of the terroristic threatening law is not limited to preventing the threats from actually being carried out. It is also to protect the targets of those threats, and those responsible for protecting them, from being subjected to emotional distress and from expending the time and energy necessary to guard against the threat (shutting down school for the day, for example).
An adult defendant faces two to seven years in prison if convicted of terroristic threatening. The juvenile criminal justice system is more flexible – it takes into account many factors including the defendant’s age, maturity, and mental health. The maximum penalty is incarceration in a juvenile facility until age 18. In some cases, however, older juveniles can be tried as adults.
A variety of defenses might be employed, depending on the circumstances. Some of the most common include:
- Lack of criminal intent – To be convicted of terroristic threatening, criminal intent must be demonstrated. Excluding political motives, which are normally not relevant to threats against schools, the motivation must be to “intimidate or coerce.” It is up to the prosecutor to prove this. To win an acquittal, the defense needs only to raise reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant actually possessed this intent.
- The threat was not reasonable – This means that a “reasonable person” would not conclude that the threat is credible. For example, a diminutive high school cheerleader threatening to murder the entire football team with her bare hands might fall into this category.
- No threat was actually made – Reports of the threat might be based on rumor or hearsay, for example. Another example might be a cryptic or poetic statement made on social media that was misinterpreted as a threat. Of course, the latter circumstances could also justify a defense of “no criminal intent.”
Current Stopgap Measures
Due to the spate of recent school shootings, the political climate in New York is definitely moving against lenient treatment of people who threaten to shoot up schools, even if they are juveniles. There are increasing calls to beef up the terroristic threatening law, or even pass a new law to ensure that convicted defendants are actually convicted of the felonies they are charged with.
In the meantime, students that have made threats are typically subjected to a mental health examination and placed on probation. Depending on the results of the mental health screening, they may be placed on medication, sent to counseling, or even be involuntarily committed to an in-patient mental health facility.
We Can Help
The New York criminal justice system is a maze for the uninitiated, and it is brutally competitive. Although the juvenile criminal justice system is fundamentally different from the adult criminal justice system, it can be fearfully difficult to deal with as well. Fear not – at E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, we’ve got your back.
Our offices are located in Albany, Troy, Latham, and Saratoga, and we serve clients throughout the Capital Region, upstate New York, and beyond. If your child has been charged with a crime or if you anticipate such a charge, call us at (518) 274-5820 (Albany) or contact us online to schedule a free case consultation.