The Utah House of Representatives voted Tuesday to impose harsher penalties against adults and students who make threats against or falsely report emergencies at Utah public schools, elevating the adult criminal offense to second-degree felony.
The Utah House of Representative voted 73-1 to pass HB14, sponsored by Rep. Brad Wilcox, R-Ogden.
The legislation, recommended by the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, will increase the possible penalty for “swatting,” which is making a false emergency report, a second-degree felony, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
Students who make a false emergency report targeted at a school face required suspension or expulsion from school.
A student who makes such a threat, “they’re going to be suspended. They’re going to at least have to think about it for a little bit. It’s going to require some of that and it’s going to require an interdisciplinary team at the school to do a threat assessment with that kid to really see is this just a prank,” Wilcox said.
Shortly after the Utah Legislature adjourned from its 2023 general session, Utah experienced a large-scale threat against 11 schools from Logan to St. George in late March, he said.
The person behind the threats, who was later determined to be a “foreign actor,” claimed there was an active shooter in the schools who had killed multiple children, Wilcox said.
The threats were determined to be a hoax but the response was costly, both to law enforcement and health care providers who began preparing their response for mass casualty incidents.
“We had a good response for the most part. Our officers didn’t do what we saw in some of the disasters around the country. They responded quickly. They were coordinated. We learned a lot that day. A lot of what we learned was where our holes are,” Wilcox said.
The threats also exacted an emotional cost for students and staff, he said.
Under HB14, “we’re requiring accountability” and reporting, Wilcox said.
The lone dissenting vote was cast by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who said he voted against HB14 because of his concern that “we’re taking too many things and turning them into felonies. There’s a question of proportionality.”
In Utah, a person can knock down their spouse and drag them across a parking lot and it’s “not a felony,” Thurston said.
“If you’re an 18-year-old that calls the school and says hey, ‘I think there’s a shooter on campus’ now that kid could (be charged). Felonies have lifelong consequences. I just don’t think that is proportional. I think the class A (misdemeanor) is a better fit for that kind of crime,” he said.
The bill was forwarded to the Utah Senate for further consideration.