COLUMBIA — A 16-year-old expelled from a private Catholic school for videos showing him repeatedly shooting at a box he said represented black men faces prosecution under a one-year-old law that lacks a penalty.
The white male, who's not being identified due to his age, was allowed to withdraw from Cardinal Newman on July 15 and was arrested two days later after a third video surfaced in which he threatened to "shoot up the school," the principal and law enforcement authorities explained this week to parents angry they weren't notified earlier.
But the law creating the crime of "student threats," his charge, set no actual punishment.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told reporters Thursday it's a misdemeanor punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That's nowhere in state law. Instead, that's the interpretation of the state Commission on Prosecution Coordination, a state agency that supports South Carolina's prosecutors, which noted in its advisory "the Legislature did not specify a penalty."
The law's ambiguity makes the charge "easily struck down by a good criminal defense attorney," said Sen. Sandy Senn. "I can’t tell you how many cops and lawyers say, 'What do we do with this?' It's a judge-by-judge decision."
The Charleston Republican is pushing for legislation expanding who can be charged, defining tiered penalties based on the severity of the threat and calling for a mental health exam as part of the bond process. The bill, which passed the Senate 30-10 in April but has yet to get a hearing in the House, would criminalize a threat to kill or harm people at any public building, church or gathering place.
The existing crime, created by a single sentence legislators added to state law in May 2018, applies only to students of a K-12 school or college.
The addition was part of a compromise that revamped the century-old charge of disturbing schools, which had become a catch-all charge critics said criminalized teenage behavior. The law limited that crime so that only trespassing non-students, to include former students who have been expelled, can be charged with disturbing "normal operations" of a school. The new "student threats" charge, a small piece of the legislation Senn sponsored since 2017, was inserted during negotiations.
"It's the only thing we could do to work it in," Senn said of the threatening charge. "I knew we didn’t have any beef when we passed it. At least we can go arrest for the threat and get to the bottom of what’s going on."
In the Cardinal Newman case, much about the videos and what's happened to the teen since his arrest remains unclear a month later.
In the two videos that led to his expulsion, the juvenile declares his hatred of black people, using expletives and racial slurs, and shoots at a box of what he says are Nike Jordan sneakers — "the favorite pair of shoes for a black man" — with a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun.
The school's new principal, Rob Loia, who moved to Columbia this summer from New Jersey, told parents Thursday those videos were made and circulated through a group text July 13, the same day a parent brought them to administrators' attention, not in mid-May as reported. Loia, who was in New York state when he got the call, met two days later with the teen's parents, who officially withdrew their son from the school so an expulsion wouldn't be on his record.
After administrators met with the parents of students who received the texts, one found a third video on her child's iPad, in which the former student said he was on his way to the school to shoot it up. That was the only video, among those seen by authorities, that was made before classes ended last school year, Loia said.
It was also the one that prompted the teen's arrest July 17, when about 20 guns were confiscated from his home, Lott said Thursday.
As "shocking and disgusting" as those other two videos were, the teen's hateful actions weren't a crime under state law, Lott said about why the teen wasn't charged when administrators first reported them July 13.
Authorities aren't saying anything about the teen's status. Neither are the teen's family members or attorney, who have not responded to multiple messages seeking comment.
Parents weren't told about the videos or arrest until Aug. 2, after The State newspaper contacted the school. Loia's first letter, which attempted to calm fears by saying a notice didn't go out because the teen's arrest "neutralized" the threat, further angered parents, who continued to demand answers Thursday during a two-hour meeting at the school.
Few answers came.
Loia said a second student was expelled, though who or for what he wouldn't say, and he assured parents that other students could be punished as the investigation continues. Some of the most tense exchanges involved the student's permitted withdrawal, potentially allowing him to easily enroll in another school. Loia tried to assuage the crowd by stressing he'd changed the student's record due to the backlash.
"As of this moment, his record does show he was expelled," Loia said.
And he apologized repeatedly for not informing parents earlier, something he first did in a follow-up letter Monday.
"It was my decision not to send out information," he said. Asked whether he faced discipline from his superiors, he responded, "I've apologized for that already."
'The new norm'
The teen's arrest was only the second time the Richland County Sheriff's Department had charged someone with "student threats." In May, a 14-year-old alternative school student was charged following a cafeteria fight that involved no weapons other than fists.
The Lexington County Sheriff's Department has charged three people with the crime since its creation last year. A 17-year-old Lexington High student was charged in September after telling another student he planned to blow up the school. An 18-year-old Pelion High student was charged in October for threatening a school shooting over social media. And a 53-year-old student of an online college told an employee at its Columbia building he would burn it down.
The charge has been levied far more in the 16th Judicial Circuit of York and Union counties, where 33 cases have resulted in 13 convictions. The 13 pending cases include the only one that didn't go through family court for juvenile offenders, where sentencing can include curfews, apology letters, counseling, community service and parental monitoring of social media, according to the only solicitor's office that responded to questions about the charge.
How often it's been used statewide is unknown. The lack of a defined punishment in the law also makes it impossible for the state's Court Administration to track it.
Senn said legislators need to strengthen the law to give law enforcement more authority to hopefully prevent tragedies like last weekend's mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 dead. Or like the tragedies that have already occurred in South Carolina — the massacre of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015 and the killing of a 6-year-old in Townville in 2016 when a 14-year-old opened fire as students headed to recess.
According to the U.S. Secret Service, over three-fourths of the shooters in 2017's 28 mass attacks that killed 147 people nationwide made threats ahead of time.
"South Carolina is far from immune to these situations," Senn said. "It's amazing how many times these guys have contact with police and they can’t do anything about it."