Maine bill calls for harsher penalties for school shooting hoaxes
The bill supports tougher penalties for swatting calls that lead to an evacuation, lockdown or emergency response
By Randy Billings
Portland Press Herald, Maine
PORTLAND, Maine — Groups representing teachers, municipalities, prosecutors, police, doctors and others joined forces Monday to support tougher criminal penalties for anyone who makes a fake threat that leads to an evacuation, lockdown or emergency response.
The bill is aimed at so-called swatting incidents — false reports intended to generate an armed police response — that can cause trauma to victims and waste public health and safety resources. The legislation comes three months after Maine law enforcement agencies scrambled to respond to fake calls reporting shots fired at 10 high schools around the state. Advocates say such incidents have increased by 600% nationally over the last four years.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, would elevate such incidents from a Class D crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine to a Class C crime punishable by up to five years in jail and a $20,000 fine. Class C is referred to as a felony-level crime because it is punishable by more than one year of incarceration.
Victims of last fall's false school shooter reports and other supporters said the bill is needed to deter instances of "domestic terrorism." But opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, argued that increased punishments do not translate into fewer offenses.
Ten schools in Maine were swatted on Nov. 15, leading to scores of students barricading themselves in their classrooms, armed police officers roaming school hallways looking for nonexistent shooters and parents wondering if they would see their children again. Authorities are still investigating the incidents and no arrests have been made. Those incidents affected nearly 5,700 students.
#FBI Boston Division Statement on multiple active shooter threats made at schools throughout Maine today, which are believed to be a hoax at this time. pic.twitter.com/HMAWybOxGm— FBI Boston (@FBIBoston) November 15, 2022
Some who were affected by the lockdowns and evacuations told lawmakers on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Monday that they're still traumatized.
Katie Schinder is a career adviser at Sanford High School, which received the first report of an active shooter at 8:20 a.m. that day. She said she was "forever changed" by the incident.
Schinder said she knew the incident was not a standard drill when she heard students barricading themselves in nearby classrooms by blocking the doors with tables, cabinets and desks. She squeezed into an 18-by-20-inch space behind a shelf and filing cabinet, pulling her knees to close her chest to avoid being seen.
"Within minutes I could hear and see armed officers in full gear with large guns running through our halls," she said. "I had no idea what was happening, but I was terrified."
She said she hid for over an hour, sending texts messages to her husband and three children, telling them that she loved them and that she was scared. Her husband turned on a scanner, she said, and heard reports of an active shooter and "four down." Eventually, she and others were escorted out of the school, with their hands above their heads by police officers."
"I hate the word hoax," Schinder said. "This was not a hoax to those of us that were in the building that day. We thought there was an active shooter in our building and the fear we felt was very real. When I walk in a room I scan the room to see where to hide, and how I would protect my students."
Ben Grant testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Maine Education Association and as a parent of a Portland student affected by the lockdown. He said he drove by his daughter's school and witnessed the massive police response before he learned it was a false report.
"It's hard to shake that image from my memory," said Grant, who also is a member of the Portland school board.
The trauma for Yarmouth High School freshman Katya Fromuth is ongoing after her school was swatted on Nov. 18, causing classes to be canceled. Days after the incident, which she described as "domestic terrorism," Fromuth said she was sitting in class when "two loud pops echoed through the halls."
"My first thought was not of construction or noisy classmates — instead it was, 'Oh no, he's got a gun,' " Fromuth said. "The fear from that moment was indescribable. I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm on the second floor, what if I can't get to the stairs in time?' Thankfully that morning, the 'gun' was just a loud paper towel dispenser. However, so many other students haven't been that lucky."
Dr. Julia Oppenheimer said the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics supports the bill, not only because of the trauma caused to victims, but also because of the "anticipated trauma" that occurs among doctors awaiting victims of a mass casualty event and how it impacts services to other hospitalized patients.
Oppenheimer read the first-hand account of Dr. Hannan Yeomans, who was among those at local hospitals preparing to treat injured students and teachers. At the time, she said hospitals had little capacity because of a surge in hospitalizations attributed to a respiratory virus.
"By the time I arrived in the (emergency department), it was clear they knew," Yeomans wrote. "It was eerily quiet. The tension rippling through providers. And I have never seen so many patients being moved out of the ED at once. It was a mass exodus."
OPPONENTS QUESTION EFFICACY
The bill does face opposition, however. Opponents, including the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said there's no evidence that increased penalties, such as those in the bill, L.D. 405, would lead to fewer offenses.
ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede said current laws adequately cover such threats, saying anyone found guilty could be sentenced up to a year. Expanding the punishment would be "ineffective and unnecessary" and the "current crime is more than adequate to capture the behavior," he said.
"In practice, somebody who perpetrates this crime, could pay a penalty that is a felony-level penalty," Kebede said of someone found guilty of multiple false alarms. "I understand there is an extraordinary amount of grief and trauma attached to the false public alarms that have happened ... but the drive to turn this Class D crime into a Class C crime is an excessive reaction to that level of trauma."
Kebede said that better investments in mental health would be a more effective way to handle swatting calls.
Walter McKee, of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, argued in written testimony that increasing the penalty would set a bad precedent.
"Making a crime like this a felony absent any need to do so would only serve to promote the further felonization of crimes in our Criminal Code," McKee wrote. "Over 30 years, I have seen countless false public alarm or report cases and their sentencings. There is no judge, much less really any prosecutor, who has ever indicated that the punishment that they are allowed to impose cannot meet the crime."
The bill was also supported by the Maine State Police, Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Prosecutors Association.
Executive Director Shira Burns said the prosecutors association has been seeking to reduce the backlog of cases by supporting bills that reduce some criminal violations to civil violations and opposing bills that create new crimes when public safety is not compromised. But Burns said the bill would better align penalties for swatting with those for terrorizing.
"Today we are in support of this because it absolutely affects public safety and aligns with how we treat other conduct similar to this," she said.
The committee will hold a work session on the bill in the coming weeks.
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