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Officials: Intimidation law too soft

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If a principal at a Franklin school finds a note written by a student saying a shooting is planned, school officials likely would suspend or expel whoever wrote it.

But under Indiana’s intimidation law, police wouldn’t be able to arrest the writer, nor could the county prosecutor charge anyone with a crime.

Under state law, people can be arrested and charged with intimidation if they threaten a specific person, either out of retaliation or to force them to act against their will, or with the intention to evacuate a building, such as a school, or a vehicle. Those specific requirements limit the ability of police and prosecutors to investigate and punish people who make threats at schools, Franklin Deputy Police Chief Chris Tennell and County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said.

The only way a student who makes a threat could be charged with intimidation is if police or school officials could prove the note was written for a specific person for a specific reason, such as a teacher who had given a student a bad grade.

“It’s not a favorable position, especially when you’re talking about Columbine and those sort of things, to do the old wait and see. That’s just not acceptable,” Cooper said.

School districts are able to

suspend or expel students who make general threats, which removes them from the buildings. But Tennell wants to be able to see the law changed so that someone who makes such a threat can be arrested and possibly sent to jail or prison.

“Whatever it takes to stop these behaviors, to protect the schools from threats,” Tennell said.

Franklin Superintendent David Clendening also wants to see the intimidation law changed so that students who make threats can be arrested or charged with a crime.

When students hear about a threat made against a classmate or the school, that’s a distraction that makes it harder for them to focus in class because they’re wondering whether they’re safe, he said.

“We need to have a safe and

secure learning environment,” Clendening said.

Indiana’s criminal code is being reviewed by lawmakers for the first time since the mid-1970s, and Republican State Sen. Michael Crider proposed a bill that would make posting threats on social media sites against people at hospitals, schools and churches a felony.

But David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said it’s unlikely the state will make it easier for police or prosecutors to investigate general threats made to schools

because such a law would affect free speech.

“It’s a real tough call as to when speech rises to the level of becoming criminal conduct,” he said.

It’s likely police and prosecutors always will have to investigate to see whether a specific person was named in a threat. Any changes to the intimidation law allowing law enforcement officials to investigate general threats could violate the First Amendment, Powell said.

Tennell first became aware of the intimidation law’s limits a few months ago after talking with

detectives throughout the state who had investigated students for making threats but couldn’t arrest them because the threats weren’t specific.

If the change proposed for the intimidation law isn’t approved this session, he wants to work with lawmakers to try to make it easier for police and prosecutors to investigate general threats made against schools.

“It still indicates that they’re implying or intending to cause harm,” Tennell said of general threats.

School officials investigate

anytime an offensive or threatening note is found, whether it’s scribbled on a piece of paper or posted on Facebook.

If students make an inappropriate or rude comment to another student or employee, they can be reprimanded by a principal or receive detention. But general and specific threats as well as offensive posts such as the online burn book that was discovered several weeks ago, pairing students’ pictures with degrading comments, can get a student suspended or expelled, Clendening said.

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