As the days pass since the horrific incident in Uvalde, Texas, our communities are left asking “what can be done?”
As we watch devastated families burying their precious children, we are consumed with finding the right answers, so no other child ever has to face a monster in their classroom again. This may be difficult to think about, but the harsh reality is laws alone cannot eliminate danger, but laws can be, and should be, a start.
In California, the law is woefully lacking in protecting schools. Legislation needs to be introduced which considers the school itself as a victim. Currently, if someone threatens a school, it’s akin to threatening a vague entity, not an actual victim. This makes it challenging to prosecute. If a teenager sends a message via social media saying, “don’t go to school today, something bad is going to happen,” as horrifying as it is, this may not constitute a criminal threat under California law, but in the eyes parents at that school it has to be addressed.
The crime of criminal threats is considered a “specific intent” crime and prosecutors must prove the suspect intended the statement to be understood as a threat. The threat must also be “sufficiently clear, immediate, and unconditional” along with the requirement that the [victim] be placed in sustained fear for his/her safety or for the safety of his/her immediate family. There is no specific language in this section which considers the safety of the student body or faculty.
As a career prosecutor, the frustrating part of proving this crime is navigating prior judicial limitations which have limited a prosecutor's ability to hold offenders accountable. Courts have said the law “was not enacted to punish emotional outburst” nor does it punish such things as “mere angry utterances or ranting soliloquies, however violent.”
In addition, there exists troubling precedents in the law where courts have ruled it’s not a crime for one student to email a friend fantasies about torturing and killing another student. While I have always championed our Constitutional rights, including free speech, it appears the archaic laws in California, written in the late 80’s, have not sufficiently evolved to deal with the phenomenon of modern social media. This can’t continue.
News reports state that the mass murderer in Uvalde had a history of killing neighborhood cats and posting videos of the acts online. Is this a sign of things to come? Absolutely.
There are predictive behaviors that should be, at the very least, tracked and prosecuted. My office views every animal cruelty case as a dangerous, violent crime and we assign a senior prosecutor to handle each one of these troubling incidents. We need a holistic approach, involving all community and family stakeholders. Schools, mental health professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors, members of the community need to be communicating and building a web that no dangerous person can slip through and harm innocent children.
Juvenile offenders provide extra challenges, as their privacy is considered sacrosanct. Court proceedings are confidential, the offenders’ identities are confidential, and my ability to speak about the cases we aggressively prosecute is limited. However, I firmly believe that school personnel have a right to be at criminal proceedings regarding their students. School officials have excellent insight into behavioral issues regarding their pupils. Ask a sixth-grade teacher if she or he has a student they believe may be dangerous in a few years, they will tell you exactly who and exactly why.
When did a juvenile offenders privacy get to the point of out-weighing the search for the truth?
Looking ahead, the new burden should fall squarely on the shoulders of our legislature to recognize the current problems and effectuate meaningful change.
As District Attorney, I believe we need to focus on two areas:
First, we need a specific penal code section that reflects either a threat against a school/student body or threats made between students on a school campus. Currently, it’s impossible to track such crimes by the listed charges alone. This must be changed so that we can understand the gravity of the situation and truly appreciate what our school administrators are facing.
Second, we have to change the law and meet the ever-changing landscape of social media. Laws must be created that acknowledge it's not simply an “I was kidding” situation when a school receives threats which reasonably require action to protect the students, faculty and provide some semblance of peace of mind to parents.
Would it surprise you to know this is not the first time, we have tried to protect our schools. Long before Uvalde, in 2015, I strongly supported SB 110 that would have made these threats eligible for prosecution, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill.
Let’s call upon this new administration to act because we must work together to find solutions, to find ways to harden the target of schools and to create laws with teeth that will remove troubled and dangerous people from our communities.
Metaphorically speaking, we must stop standing outside and listening to the screams. We must act.
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: Tim Ward: 'We must stop standing outside and listening to the screams'