“Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Responsibility is the price of freedom.”
— Elbert Hubbard
School bomb threats are not a new thing. They happened when I was in high school and in those days were often simply ignored. But those were the days before threats had turned into reality in places like Columbine. Today, these reports occupy the time of law enforcement and emergency agencies that could otherwise be dealing with persons who are actually in distress. False reports can cost government agencies money as they add to travel, investigation and overtime expenses.
The criminal code in Ohio provides several penalties for persons who falsely report crimes. The purpose of those penalties is not to prevent persons from reporting situations in which they believe that crime may have occurred, but are instead intended to punish those who intentionally create false reports. Among the applicable offenses are:
• Inducing panic: An offense that applies to any circumstance in which a person causes the evacuation of a public place or “serious public inconvenience” by making a threat of impending fire, explosion, crime or other catastrophe when they know it is false. Inducing panic is generally a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in a county jail for an adult and up to 90 days in detention for a juvenile. However, if a person is injured or if there is significant economic harm, the offense can be as serious as a second-degree felony, punishable by up to eight years in a state prison for adults. Economic harm includes damages to property, loss of productivity and costs of overhead and overtime.
• Making false alarms: This is a similar offense that equally covers public and private places. It also applies to false reports made to any public or private agency that deals with emergencies and applies to reports to law enforcement that are false, even if they cause no public alarm. The section specifically exempts fire drills. Making false alarms is generally a misdemeanor of the first degree punishable by up to 180 days in a county jail for adults and up to 90 days in detention for juveniles. If the threat involves a weapon of mass destruction or causes serious economic harm, the offense can be as serious as a felony of the third degree, punishable by up to five years in a state penitentiary.
• Falsification: This section prohibits a person from making a false statement to a public official if the statement is made with the purpose of misleading that public official. It is frequently filed against persons who lie to a police officer or detective who is conducting an investigation. Falsification is generally a misdemeanor of the first degree.
Ohio law also contains offenses for misusing the 9-1-1 system, falsely reporting child abuse, falsely reporting an allegation of police officer misconduct and making terrorist threats.
The Ohio Senate is now considering a bill that could make parents and guardians of students responsible for the financial costs of threats that their children make. The primary aim of Senate Bill 297 is to give schools more options to take disciplinary action against students who make school threats, but the bill also contains a provision that says, “The board of education of any school district or any law enforcement agency of a municipal corporation, township or county may file a civil action in the appropriate court of common pleas to seek recovery for restitution from the parent, guardian or custodian of a pupil who is expelled” for a school threat. The damages are broadly defined to include any costs incurred by the school or law enforcement agency related to the act that led to the expulsion.
Senate Bill 297 has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee and would have to pass both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly and be signed by the governor before it would become law.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.