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Fake threats of violence cost schools thousands, yet there's no law making it illegal

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Fake threats of violence cost schools thousands, yet there's no law making it illegal (Photo: KUTV)

UPDATE: (Feb. 28, 2019) -- House Bill 171 passed the House unanimously on Thursday. The bill sponsored by Rep. Andrew Stoddard criminalizes threats against a school. The bill was filed in response to the Beyond the Books investigation earlier this month.

It was a frigid January morning when nearly 2,000 students were rushed out of their school into subfreezing temperatures and snow.

Someone had reported a bomb threat they saw scrawled onto a bathroom wall. It said a bomb would go off inside Jordan High School.

The threat triggered Canyons School District protocols and the building was quickly evacuated.

“It put me into a weird state of fear, where I didn’t know what was going on,” Jordan High School student Mykel Williams said.

Mykel and her classmates were herded onto buses to get away from the school, just in case there was an explosion.

"Some students had to leave gym in the middle of winter. They were in shorts and t-shirts,” said Jeff Haney, a spokesperson for Canyons School District.

Two hours later, police sounded the all-clear, and students were allowed back in the school.

The threat was a hoax and was the fifth time in the last two at a Canyons' school. Canyons administrators calculated that the cost for the single event came to more than $13,000, accounting for two hours of staff salaries and classroom time wasted by the evacuation and investigation.

As police started to investigate the threat, officers found an interesting void in Utah law — namely, that it is technically not against the law to make a threat to a school.

“I've heard that from prosecutors that there is not a clear way to prosecute these types of cases,” said Murray City prosecutor and state Rep. Andrew Stoddard (D-Dist. 44).

Stoddard says prosecutors find themselves in a dead zone when it comes to charging people who make these kinds of threats. The current laws are either too lenient or too severe.

In response, Stoddard has introduced House Bill 171, which would make threatening a school against the law and would also provide guidance to police and the courts in case someone — particularly a juvenile — does make a threat.

Stoddard explained:

So without a bill like this, we might have to sort of, dig around for [a statute] that sort of fits.

Stoddard added when people under the age of 18 threaten their schools, it is likely a cry for help. He said his bill would help those kids get mental health services and keep them out of jail.

"They don't even have to go to court. It's something the school can handle or refer to court because we want the kids to get the help they need," he said.

Meanwhile, many school districts, including Canyons, believe H.B. 171 would act as a deterrent.

"Hopefully that will make them think twice about going online and saying something they may, or may not, mean,” Haney said.

But for students, the damage may have already been done.

Williams said ever since the threat against her school, she avoids large gatherings of her fellow students. She said:

I know a lot of kids, along with me, who are afraid to go to assemblies because they don’t want to be stuck in a huge room compacted all together.

Beyond the Books is an investigative unit at KUTV 2News. If you have an education issue that needs to be probed, call Chris Jones at 801-503-6705, or email cjones@kutv2.com, or Producer Nadia Pflaum at 385- 249-8824, or email npflaum@kutv2.com.