Two top Oconomowoc School District administrators testified in Madison recently to support proposed legislation that would elevate the penalty for threatening a school shooting.
Under the current law, threatening a school shooting is classified as a misdemeanor that results in a simple disorderly conduct citation. Assembly Bill 273 would make that action a Class I felony, the smae penalty for making a bomb threat.
The penalty for a Class I felony can be fine of up to $10,000 and a prison term of up to 3 1/2 years.
Superintendent Roger Rindo and Oconomowoc High School Principal Joseph Moylan lent support for the measure, which has garnered bipartisan support ahead of a vote planned for Thursday in the State Assembly.
State Rep. Joel Kleefisch, of Oconomowoc, chairman of Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, said parents across the state have a heightened awareness due to school shootings and believes there should be "a justifiable, strong, and severe consequence" for making such a threat.
"There's no doubt in my mind that when students realize they could go to prison for making a bomb threat, but it's a slap on the wrist for making a gun threat, they're clearly going to make the gun threat because the reaction is the same at the school, as it should be, but the consequence is not, currently."
"I think that this bill brings the law to our current situation. This law makes threatening a school with a bomb or a firearm equal."
Bomb scares became a felony in the 1970s following a rash of threats that caused similar disruptions and fears.
The bill, authored by State Rep. Steve Doyle of Onalaska and State Senator Janet Bewley (Ashland), both Democrats, appeals to both sides of the aisle, Kleefisch said.
"I anticipate it will be an unanimous vote. We are at a time in history where is there is no place for threatening a school, period."
City of Oconomowoc Police Chief David Beguhn is a proponent of the proposal, and notes that the change would also provide options not available under a misdemeanor classification.
"What I want to stress is that for a lot of people their gut reaction is that this is going to ruin that young person's life. Actually, no, because they way I look at it in law enforcement, this is not necessarily going to be punitive. When you charge someone with a crime, the prosecutor and the courts have more resources available to them.
"If it's not a crime, and the Oconomowoc Police Department issues you a citation, you pay the ticket and it's done. But if it's brought there, there are other sanctions: there's probation and counseling.
"If you don't correct the behavior and they follow through with it, they are going to ruin a lot of people's lives," he explained.
OHS Principal Joseph Moylan shared an experience that he said highlights the need for a more stringent penalty.
"This year I have had three threats at OHS and one of those the student had the plan, the people and the gun," he testified.
"At his expulsion hearing, his father told the board of education, "Come on, this is not even that big of a deal. If it was, the police would be charging him with something more than disorderly conduct. That is what you get for being too loud at bar time."
In November of 2015, district officials dealt with two gun scares within a week.
The first occurrence, deemed credible by police, was prevented after a student notified law-enforcement officials of a text messages from a fellow student that he intended to bring a firearm to school to shoot students and then take his own life.
The second instance, which police said was not credible, involved threatening comments made in an online chat room to someone in another state.
"We need to provide the police with the help they need to negotiate help for the young people who make this choice. We need to provide schools with a message that this is a very serious action and it has the most serious of consequences," the OHS principal said in his testimony.
" Over that last two and a half months, our district has had the unfortunate experience that too many school districts in our state, and frankly around our country, have experienced," he testified.
Rindo said that in each case, "excellent police work headed off any potential tragedy through timely investigation, and helped to determine the level of credibility."
"It is not the penalty under the law that will help us in schools, but the teeth of the law itself.
"Perhaps there once was a time when threats to harm children, teachers, or other school personnel could have been passed off as an adolescent prank. Not anymore. We live in an age in which such threats, even those without credibility, are far from a harmless prank," he said.
Kleefisch said he welcomed the school district's willingness to advocate for the passage of the bill.
"I sincerely appreciate the aggressive nature the Oconomowoc School District is taking on a matter that is serious and bipartisan."
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