As South Carolina legislators advanced a proposal Thursday making it easier to charge suspects for school violence threats, law enforcement officials across the state dealt with another round of warnings over mass shootings.
Police near Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Columbia sent out social media alerts Thursday about school threats, though some were not confirmed. Concerns have been heightened in the last week after a 19-year-old was accused of killing 17 students and educators at his former Florida school.
This week’s wave of school threats suggests a greater need for counseling, said Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston.
A bill sponsored by Senn that makes threatening violence against a school a misdemeanor advanced out of a Senate panel Thursday. Suspects face as much as three years in prison and fines up to $3,000. Suspects can be charged for making threats with a “dangerous weapon or instrument,” which would include guns, knives or even a car.
“I don’t know why our society has come to this,” Senn said after a Statehouse hearing Thursday. “There seems to be copycats in every situation. I don’t know whether these kids are just struggling for attention, but that’s just another reason why we need to get some mental health involvement.”
But making those threats also must have consequences, she said.
Right now, when a threat against a school is scribbled on a wall or posted on social media, state law makes it unclear what crime has been committed, Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, told the Senate panel. Suspects can be charged with communicating a threat or disturbing schools, both of which carries less severe penalties than the proposed new law.
“We are trying to get that person and charge that person with an offense that is adequate and fits the crime,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen. We need to have a statute that squarely and adequately addresses this issue.”
Representatives from the S.C. Police Chiefs Association and the State Law Enforcement Division testified during Thursday’s hearing that they support Senn’s bill.
Bruder said recent threats may simply be cases of teenagers seeking attention in the wake of Feb. 14 shooting.
“But we have to assume all are credible,” he said.
Police across South Carolina reacted to threats even if they were not deemed immediately credible.
In Horry County, police sent additional officers on Thursday to Socastee High School outside Myrtle Beach after a social media post that threatened a shooting at "SHS."
Horry County Police Department spokeswoman Krystal Dotson said police got multiple calls from worried parents as the threat circulated online. The department investigated the post and determined it was a hoax and originated in another state, she said.
"If you are thinking of making comments that are going to hurt people or cause damage, you really need to think twice about that," Dotson said. “This is not something you can say and not think we’re going to investigate. This is not a joke.”
Be prepared to see a heavy presence of officers at the school throughout the day tomorrow.— Horry County PD (@horrycountypd) February 22, 2018
We take great concern in the safety of all students, faculty & staff of every school in HC & will continue to take every comment that threatens the safety of our community very seriously.
The Lexington County Sheriff's Department tweeted Thursday that it was sending extra patrols to Airport High School in West Columbia even though deputies were not aware of an immediate threat. Suspects were arrested this week for threats against two other Lexington County schools, Gilbert and Chapin high schools.
Summerville police and Berkeley County schools posted messages on social media Thursday to assure the public about rumors of supposed threats. Three schools in Berkeley were placed on lockdown on Tuesday after threatening calls to Cane Bay High School.
The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office later arrested 20-year-old David Aaron Moultrie, of Matilda Circle in Pineville, on Thursday in connection with the false threats. He was charged with threatening to use a destructive device.
Also this week, Orangeburg deputies arrested a 23-year-old Shakiem Ellison in connection with Facebook post threatening Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School with the message: "shoot up OW TOMORROW 725 AM?" and Sumter County authorities reported that a 13-year-old at Chestnut Oaks Middle School in Sumter County allegedly wrote in a bathroom this week that she would "shoot the school down."
Angie Jackson contributed to this report.