The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Tough-talking students on DA radar

Prosecutor looking for new laws with 'teeth'

 


What can the courts do if a child threatens violence at school? That’s a big question emerging for prosecutors throughout the state and one that was highlighted locally by some recent incidents in Clovis.

“It just seems to be the trend across the country,” District Attorney Andrea Reeb said Friday. “I think at some point we have to start taking these things pretty seriously and quit coddling the kids, and start putting some teeth in what we’re doing and how we’re punishing these kids when they’re juveniles.”

The closest statutes come to giving prosecutors the kind of bite they might desire is in the case of a bomb threat, which as a felony would be automatically bumped into the district court for adjudication.

However, something comparable like threatening to shoot up the school — as two Clovis students have done since February — may not in itself qualify as a felony.

“There isn’t a statute right on point dealing with the type of situations we’re starting to see routinely across the schools with phone threats, or whatever,” Reeb said. “Saying ‘I’m going to shoot up the school tomorrow,’ isn’t necessarily going to get you (a felony charge).”

She hopes that will change as other prosecutors struggle to deal with similar incidents around the state, and especially in the context of mass shootings occurring both across the country and locally, as with the deadly Aug. 28 shooting at the Clovis-Carver Public Library by a teenager.

What would be Reeb's ideal change to current statutes?

“For me, I think it would be something that would address instances where threats are made to shoot up or harm children at a school or in a public area. I believe that should be a fourth-degree felony, like when you make a bomb threat,” she said. “It’s very difficult and I think it’s going to take enacting some type of legislation, which I hope would be a focus of the upcoming (legislative) session next year.”

For it to be a felony is a significant distinction. Misdemeanor offenses such as interference with the educational process and disorderly conduct — some of the charges leveled last week on a 13-year old who threatened to shoot up Marshall Middle School because he disliked his teachers — are not automatically sent to the courts, but may still get there after some discussion between the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department and prosecutors.

“The first thing that would happen is there is basically an evaluation that is done,” CYFD Communications Director Henry Varela said Thursday. “At that point, based on that evaluation we have a better idea of if this is something that needs to be immediately pushed over to the district attorney’s office or if this is something that might meet the criteria for (different) handling.”

Deciding how to proceed with a misdemeanor charge typically involves some dialogue with the district court as well as consideration of the juvenile’s history of past infractions, if there is one, he added.

Still, it’s partly the possibility of certain offenses not immediately coming to the court’s consideration that concerns Reeb. Assault on school personnel, which can take the form of a verbal threat of immediate battery to a school employee, is still a misdemeanor and as such might never reach the court.

That charge can be bumped up to felony aggravated assault if there is a "deadly weapon" involved — and the Airsoft pistol wielded last month by a 12-year old at Marshall Middle School threatening to shoot his principle does meet the legal definition of one, since it can take your eye out.

A student might be joking or simply seeking attention with a threat of mass violence, Reeb acknowledged, but that doesn’t change the seriousness of the situation, especially given the current climate of high-profile school violence.

“I think you see that a lot,” she said “But it disrupts the educational process and it scares people.”

Accordingly, she intends to send a clear message to any tough-talking students who would try to make light of the issue in the future. As with any juvenile case, consequences would still be meted out differently, and the first effort is for rehabilitation over punishment, she said But it’s a consequence all the same.

“Definitely in this day and age we will always pursue those very aggressively,” she said.

 

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