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Utah legislator calls for tougher law regarding hoax calls about threats to schools

By Rob Nielsen - Standard-Examiner | Aug 9, 2023

Rob Nielsen, Standard-Examiner

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, leads a press conference on proposed legislation making all hoax messages about school violence a felony Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023.

SALT LAKE CITY — As a new school year approaches, officials are keeping in mind the safety of students, faculty and their community resources.

At a press conference at the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, legislators and other officials held a press conference to discuss potential legislation meant to combat false reports of violence in schools.

Spearheading the effort is Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, who led off Wednesday’s press conference by saying something needs to be done to firmly stop such hoaxes.

“We can’t do it anymore. There’s too high of a cost,” he said. “We’re well over felony territory if we’re talking about the dollar amounts. But if we’re talking about the human costs of these hoaxes — this isn’t how you get out of a test. This isn’t how you get out of whatever it is you don’t want to do at school that day, or a prank. Right now in our code, these kinds of hoax calls and these kinds of hoax messages that threaten serious violence can be charged quite differently depending on the delivery and depending on how those messages are sent. After this piece of legislation, that will be uniform. It will no longer be up to how they were delivered. They will be felonies. There will be serious consequences for engaging in this kind of terrorist activity.”

Under the proposed legislation, making hoax calls and messages about violence in schools would become a second-degree felony.

Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson detailed two major incidents that occurred in Utah during the last couple of years, the first involving a supposed social media challenge in December 2021.

“A social media trend involving school threats led to over 200 tips being submitted to SafeUT,” he said.

That trend was nationwide, Anderson said, and included a Utah resident claiming there was going to be an active shooter situation at West High School in Salt Lake City.

Anderson also addressed the March 29 incident which saw several schools across the state — including Ogden, Provo and Spanish Fork — become victims of a hoax claiming ongoing mass-casualty shootings.

“These hoax incidents can take various forms including emails, letters and altered social media images and screenshots,” he said. “Hoax threats have various negative consequences, including financial and resource burdens on responding agencies, crisis fatigue among first responders and the public mental health and trauma to students, teachers and communities and disruption to personal activities and events.”

He said these came on top of an already catastrophic year for actual shootings.

“In 2022, the U.S. witnessed a concerning increase in active shooter incidents with a total of 313 casualties last year — the highest count in the past five years — with several incidents occurring at educational institutions,” he said.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Ogden Chief of Police Eric Young further elaborated on what happened in Ogden on March 29.

“We had a threat call of students being shot at Ogden High School,” he said. “Nearly 50 officers from every agency in Weber County, including the Utah Highway Patrol and agencies outside of Weber County — including Box Elder and Morgan County– responded to Ogden High School as rapidly as they can. Fortunately, as they responded, our school resource officer who was in the school at that time immediately began scanning the school and assessing for any signs of a real threat and was quickly able to recognize that there didn’t appear to be a threat.”

He said the call was quickly analyzed and found to be an internet-based call which later was determined to have come from outside the United States.

Young said while there’s a pride to be taken in the quick arrival of first responders, it was no less an alarming and taxing scenario for all involved.

“Our response made us very proud, but it was troubling because I knew how much distress and trauma this was causing, not just for the first responders, but especially for the students, the faculty and the administration of that school and other schools,” he said.

Chris Dallin of Intermountain Health noted that it’s not just first-responder agencies that have to implement drastic measures when the call of a mass shooting comes in, such as the ultimately false report on March 29.

“Because of the threat we received from dispatch, we were told that we would be receiving several ‘high acuity’ patients,” he said. “That’s hospital speak for injured folks that need life-saving care. As a result of that, the protocols suggest that we cancel surgeries, that we move our patients to another day, we call in emergency room doctors, we bring in more staff and nurses in order to work through those issues and that’s exactly what happened. Those extra staff showed up in really profound ways and were able to provide the care that we thought was needed.”

He said that day was very taxing for McKay-Dee Hospital.

“The situation created an inconvenience for patients and caregivers,” he said. “It cost time and resources and concern for many. One of the things that happened was parents couldn’t find their children. They were circling our parking lot wondering if their kid had been injured in this particular issue.”

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said, as a police chief, he dealt with another hoax call that was initiated by a student within a school building.

“A student (was) trying to get out of a test he wasn’t prepared to take,” he said. “His call of a gunman in the school resulted in over 200 officers responding to that school, the school being on lockdown for multiple hours as we worked through it and tried to get to the bottom of it.”

He said this instance showed the need for tougher laws.

“Unfortunately, at the end of all of the stress, all of the trauma, all of the resources and everything that was put into this, nothing really happened to that student,” he said. “That student got what I would call a slap on the wrist for that behavior that cost multiple thousands of dollars to respond to from all of these agencies.”

Utah County Attorney Jeff Gray said he agrees that state law regarding hoax calls about violence in schools is not up to par today.

“The current law adequately addressed the seriousness at the time because (hoaxes) weren’t a real threat,” he said. “Today, it is a real threat. I remember the hoax calls we had this year in Utah County and the vast amount of resources by law enforcement that were diverted away from real crime, real danger to the public.”

He said it’s not just about the diversion of resources, though.

“More importantly, I remember the very real harm that it has on students and parents,” he said. “In the Utah County Attorney’s Office, we have parents of children, and there was real panic in them as they were concerned about their children in these schools.”

Speakers also included Patty Norman of the Utah State Board of Education, Jay Blain of the Utah Education Association and Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George.


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