NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Threats against schools in Tennessee happen more than you might think.
“Homeland Security told me that currently, when school is in session, they’ll have three to four to five of these events across the state every week,” said Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin).
Haile said most of the time it’s just a student reacting to something frustrating them within the school, and he doesn’t want them hit with too harsh a punishment. But other times, it’s more serious.
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Currently, it’s a Class-A misdemeanor to make such a threat. Haile’s bill would add a Class-E felony for a general threat of mass violence and a Class-D felony if that threat is targeted somewhere specific, like a place of worship, school or government building.
The misdemeanor carries a punishment of about a year or less in jail and a fine of $2,500 or less.
The Class-D felony carries between two and 12 years in jail and a potential fine of $5,000 or less.
Under this bill, the misdemeanor would still exist, but Haile said it would likely be used sparingly.
“The reason that we’re leaving the misdemeanor in is because you might have a 14-year-old in school that makes an idle threat,” he said. “We don’t want to make them into a felon.”
“It may not be the intent of the sponsor for this bill, if it becomes law, to apply to kids or to threats that aren’t credible,” DRT Policy Coordinator Zoë Jamail said. “But that is what the language of the bill does.”
The nonprofit said the bill will also target students with disabilities. “We’re seeing that many of the children who are charged with the misdemeanor threats of mass violence are kids with disabilities,” Jamail said.
Most importantly though, according to the nonprofit, if someone is reported for a threat, it requires multiple mental evaluations, which it argues could potentially lead to involuntary commitment.
“It captures threats that might not have intent behind them or are otherwise not credible,” Jamail said. “We would like to see language that only captures credible threats.”
But Haile said lawmakers addressed those concerns while writing the bill, and that those scenarios were front of mind while drafting.
“We spent a lot of time on this, and we chased a lot of rabbits. We used a wall back there that was longer than that wall,” Haile said, pointing at an adjacent wall in his office. “It had sticky notes all over it.”
The bill died in special session, but Haile said he’ll revive it for regular session in January.