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To increase Oregon school safety, bills would make threatening mass violence a felony, add panic buttons

FILE: A parent hugs his daughter after she arrived with other students at a shopping center parking lot in Wood Village, Ore., after a shooting at Reynolds High School on June 10, 2014, in nearby Troutdale. A gunman killed a student at the high school.
Troy Wayrynen
FILE: A parent hugs his daughter after she arrived with other students at a shopping center parking lot in Wood Village, Ore., after a shooting at Reynolds High School on June 10, 2014, in nearby Troutdale. A gunman killed a student at the high school.

Bills to address both real and false threats of school violence are on the Legislature’s docket this week — several of them have bipartisan support.

Earlier this year, false threats of mass shootings were directed at schools across Oregon.

“We believe these to be swatting incidents to instigate police response and generate panic among responders and community members,” Lt. Brad O’Dell of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post on Feb. 21, 2023, the day schools in his county received false threats of violence. “There have been similar incidents occurring nationwide for at least the past 24 hours. Law Enforcement will respond to and assess each incident appropriately.”

False threats caused lockdowns across Pennsylvania schools last week. NPR reported in October that false calls about violence are up. And in Washington, police recently arrested a man for making over 20 false threats in the U.S. and Canada.

In Oregon, lawmakers from both major parties have introduced legislation aimed at increasing school safety in recent weeks. While House Republicans’ support for schools have mostly focused on more “hardening” measures, including metal detectors, House Democrats have been more focused on using legislation to focus on gun violence reduction.

A bill scheduled for a work session Monday would make it a felony for anyone threatening to “cause unlawful serious physical injury or death to four or more persons at a school, place of worship, health care facility, place of business,” or other meeting places. Another would mandate district-level policies for notifying parents in the case of a threat. Both bills, along with several others, appear poised to move forward. Some of them have bipartisan support.

Rep. Courtney Neron, a Democrat representing Wilsonville, is one of the chief sponsors of House Bill 3035, the one that would make it a felony to threaten violence against people in a school or other public building.

“Law enforcement needs the tools to respond when a credible threat occurs,” Neron said in a statement. “This bill will ensure that if a threat of mass harm is directed to a school, place of worship, hospital, or any other gathering space occurs, that law enforcement can respond swiftly and appropriately to keep people safe.”

False threats of school violence cause fear and concern for students, staff and their families. Real shootings at schools and other public places, including the one last week at a private Nashville elementary school, have also led to heightened safety concerns.

House Bill 3035 has faced both opposition and support in public testimony. A joint letter from Disability Rights Oregon and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association expressed concern about the “ripple effects” of a conviction on a person making a threat as well as their family and the broader community.

“HB 3035 will sweep up young people and mentally ill people and make the cycle in and out of the criminal legal system incredibly difficult to break,” the organizations shared in the letter. The bill, they said, “will feed the school to prison pipeline.”

The bill received support from the Oregon School Boards Association as well as from the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.

Representing the latter two organizations, Sherwood Chief of Police Ty Hanlon recounted his experience dealing with 15 separate threats to Sherwood schools in May 2022 and said the person who made the threats was initially charged with a misdemeanor, which did not keep them in custody.

“A misdemeanor today often results in a cite and release from the scene,” Hanlon shared. “Without the ability to charge and hold someone, [it] does not protect the community or give law enforcement enough time to further investigate the case.”

Rep. Neron recounted visiting an elementary school in Sherwood after students spent “part of a day” in lockdown.

“I was struck by the lasting impact that the students felt from being terrified that day of the threat,” she shared. “They didn’t even feel comfortable opening the exterior door to get fresh air in the classroom when it got stuffy, for fear of their safety.”

A new amendment to the bill outlines a reporting effort to see who is affected by the bill. If the bill passes, the state would be required to report how many people were charged with “threatening a mass injury event,” as well as how many people were targeted by the threat, disaggregated by race, age, disability and other factors.

House Bill 3035 is sponsored by Democrats. There are a handful of bills Republican lawmakers tried to push forward on the heels of national conversation about school safety following the shooting in Nashville.

Last week, Republican legislators sought support for a package of bills dedicated to “Safe Schools.” The bills ranged from requiring the state to pay for school-based police officers to requiring studies on school security.

House Republicans attempted to push a vote on the floor for the bills in their package, two of which were sponsored or co-sponsored by Democratic lawmakers. Only one received the required 31 votes to move forward.

House Bill 3584 would require every school district to adopt a policy for notifying parents and staff about safety threats to schools and any lockdowns or evacuations. Rep. Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, is one of the bill’s chief sponsors.

“Having this type of system … is crucial not just for the law enforcement side, but it’s more for the parents and the students so they know they’re safe,” said Helfrich, a former Portland police officer, during a public hearing for the bill on March 20.

Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, tweeted that there are also other bills coming up that would require the Oregon Department of Education to conduct studies on school safety and potential solutions. Among the bills Ruiz referenced is House Bill 3348, which would require a study on implementing the Salem-Keizer threat assessment program across the state. The Salem-Keizer program is used throughout the country and takes a more preventative approach aimed at supporting students before any violent attacks occur.

House Bill 3348 is also up for a work session Monday. Amendments include the contents of two Republican backed bills that failed to move forward: one that requires ODE to study costs and funding sources to improve school safety, and another that requires a state study about establishing a single point of entry for schools in the state.

Another proposed new law is named in honor of a student who was killed in the Parkland school shooting. Alyssa’s Law, or House Bill 3101, would require a panic button to be installed in every classroom in a school. Panic buttons allow for a connection to 911 and law enforcement within a couple of seconds.

“It’s an opportunity for better communication,” said Rep. Emerson Levy, D-Bend, one of the bill’s chief sponsors.

Levy said adding the panic buttons in every Oregon school would cost about $2.5 million, with variations depending on a school’s internet access. She added that the button has also been used to support anyone in a school experiencing anaphylactic shock or seizures.

Alyssa’s Law has passed in New Jersey and Florida, with other states voting on similar legislation. Speaking of the bipartisan support for the bill, Levy called it a “common sense” safety reform that goes beyond party affiliation.

“No one, no one wants our kids not to be safe at school,” Levy said.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Elizabeth Miller is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Elizabeth is an Ohio native and a graduate of Baldwin Wallace University.