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Pewaukee police chief favors proposal to stiffen penalties for school shooting threats

Police responded to Pewaukee High School Oct. 1, 2015 after a handwritten message was found at the school which threatened a school shooting. A bill pending in the state Legislature would make it a felony to threaten a school shooting.

Police responded to Pewaukee High School Oct. 1, 2015 after a handwritten message was found at the school which threatened a school shooting. A bill pending in the state Legislature would make it a felony to threaten a school shooting. Photo By Scott Ash

Feb. 12, 2016

A bill being proposed in Madison would stiffen the penalties for those who make school shooting threats, a change that would be welcomed by Pewaukee's police chief.

The measure would make the crime a Class I felony — the same as making a bomb threat at a school — and would carry a penalty of a fine up to $10,000 and a prison term of up to 31/2 years.

Pewaukee Village Police Chief Tim Otto favors the legislation.

"I think this is basically the law evolving from where we were during the time period of the '70s and '80s where bomb threats were prevalent, to now, since the tragedy at Columbine, with school shootings being a more prevalent type of threat to our schools," Otto said.

Otto's department responded to the Pewaukee Schools campus in October after a handwritten threat about a school shooting was found at Pewaukee High School.

The threat, which came during homecoming week, compelled school officials to cancel the pep rally and homecoming parade and reschedule the homecoming football game.

Stone Bank School District Superintendent Phil Meissen, whose school was evacuated less than two weeks later when a written bomb threat was found, said he'd be in favor of stiffer penalties for those making school shooting threats.

But Meissen said he's not sure stronger penalties will act as a deterrent. He said education provided to students by teachers, parents, media members and law enforcement is what will have the most impact.

"Teaching students to talk with adults about their feelings towards others, school and their lives in a productive way is important," Meissen said. "Students need to practice good communication that does not harm others and learn to persist with positive communication when a change in circumstance is desired."

Two top administrators with the Oconomowoc Area School District, Superintendent Roger Rindo and Oconomowoc High School Principal Joseph Moylan, recently testified in Madison in support of the bill.

The Oconomowoc district dealt with two gun-related threats within a week in November.

The bill is currently being reviewed by the Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Rep. Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee), who represents Pewaukee, Sussex and much of the city of Waukesha, said he has unanswered questions about the measure and is still reviewing the legislation.

"I think there are valid concerns with how we treat children who have disabilities or serious mental issues who may make such a threat," Neylon said. "Ultimately, I am open to working with the authors of the bill to craft the best legislation possible."

Arrowhead Superintendent Laura Myrah said it seems logical to her that the legal consequences for a threat of gunfire would be equivalent to that of a bomb threat.

"It seems to me that gunfire potentially could do similar damage to human life as a bomb explosion," Myrah said. "Similarly, the threat of a bomb detonation and the threat of gunfire within a school could initiate similar fear, raise havoc to a safe environment, and cause plenty of wasted time and resources for students, parents, staff and law-+enforcement authorities." 

Otto said the law-enforcement response to a bomb threat or a shooting threat at a school is similar at the beginning, but a shooting threat can require a longer-duration response.

"Sometimes a school shooting threat can lead to multiple operational periods, multiple days in a row where you might be at the school," Otto said. "So the law-enforcement response to a school shooting threat at times would be greater than that of a bomb threat."

Otto said making the penalties harsher for those who threaten school shootings would hopefully make the person "think twice" about making the threat and also would give authorities investigative opportunities, like subpoenas, that they might not have with investigating disorderly conduct-type situations.

It could also result in more resources being available for the person making the threat.

"Our response would be the same whether it's a felony or a misdemeanor to make sure the students in the district are safe," Otto said. "But I think that this at least would elevate it to a crime to the point that there'd be other resources available too for the person should they be caught, whether it's probation counseling, court-ordered counseling, things that a municipal court simply doesn't have access to."

A call to Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper wasn't immediately returned.

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