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Valley News Dispatch

School threat makers can face felony charges, permanent criminal record

Emily Balser
| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 5:01 p.m.

It's hard to know what goes through children's minds when they make threats against their peers or a school.

But regardless of whether the threat is real or a joke, the consequences can be serious.

There have been dozens of threats, many of them online through social media, made against Western Pennsylvania school districts since the Parkland, Fla., shooting in February.

There were several more in the region just this week, among them Apollo-Ridge , Leechburg Area , Norwin , Trafford and Hempfield Area .

Not only do students found to have made the threats face punishment by their school district that can range from suspension to expulsion, they often face legal repercussions that can land them on probation or in a juvenile detention center with a criminal record.

“It's not something they can get out of by saying it was a prank or a joke,” said Ryan Tarkowski, spokesman with the Pennsylvania State Police. “It's a very real investigation.”

The most common charge for these incidents is “making terroristic threats.”

Under state law, a terroristic threats charge could be filed if a person communicates, either directly or indirectly, a threat to commit any crime of violence, to cause evacuation of a building or to cause other public inconvenience or terror.

The offense could be upgraded from a first-degree misdemeanor to a third-degree felony if the threat disrupts normal activities in, for instance, a school.

Crime and punishment

Felony charges can stay on the student's criminal record for the rest of their lives. Officials say they have the potential be expunged, but that can be a costly and lengthy process.

“We don't want people thinking, ‘I'm a juvenile so, when I turn 18, it goes away,'” Tarkowski said. “It's not something that's easy, or you can just turn the page on and start fresh.”

Russell Carlino, chief juvenile probation officer for Allegheny County, said there's no single punishment for juveniles who make threats. The punishment depends on the severity of the threat and whether the child has been in trouble before.

“It's case by case,” he said. “It could be anything from probation to residential placement (juvenile detention) ordered by a judge.”

Addie Beighley, Westmoreland County's director of juvenile probation, said every juvenile who is processed through the system is assessed to see what their needs may be.

That can range from needing to be removed from a home to determining what kind of support the child needs to prevent a repeat offense.

“That kid, by law, is going to come back into court for another hearing between three and six months and then the judge will decide at that point, ‘Has there been progress?'” Beighley said.

Punishment at the school district level is similar, with officials handling them on a case-by-case basis.

“There's really no one answer to everything,” said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The association provides sample polices to their members ranging from how to handle weapons, threats and emergency preparedness.

Each district can modify their policies to what their officials decide is best for them.

Robinson said they have been receiving some concerns and questions from members following the Parkland shooting. They've tried to address those concerns by providing a training webinar in conjunction with other agencies.

“I think that it certainly makes sense for any district to be continually looking at their policies and making sure they're up-to-date,” he said. “Regardless of this specific instance, they should be doing that with all of their policies on a regular basis.”

Parents matter

Tarkowski said it's important for parents to know what social media platforms their children are using and to be aware of when they are on their phones or computers.

“Kids have access to these communications tools 24/7, 365, and I think that's when a lot of the bad things happen,” he said.

He suggests parents put limits on when their kids can access these devices and be aware of who they may be communicating with.

“Our message to parents is do the best to know what your kids are doing online,” Tarkowski said. “It's really hard to know everything — the first step is to ask.”

Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680, or on Twitter @emilybalser.

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