DA recommends new legislation for school safety

District Attorney Tim Ward suggests new prosecutorial rules should come from the state legislature to help guard against school shootings

TULARE COUNTY – In light of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, tensions are high when it comes to school safety and the district attorney offered his support for certain state legislation. 

Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward expressed what can be done to further keep schools and administration safe from ongoing threats in a statement after the Uvalde shooting in May. He believes there needs to be legislation to help better handle threats on students, administrators and schools as a whole.

“We’ve got to do a better job bringing the laws up to date,” Ward said. “Legislation needs to be introduced which considers the school itself as a victim.”

Currently there is no particular legislation that allows for specifications referring to threats against schools according to Ward. He plans to focus on looking at inadequacies in the law and take action in the upcoming year as it is too late in the cycle for this legislative session.  

Ward supported Senate Bill (SB) 110 in 2015 which would have made threats against schools eligible for prosecution. He said this bill was unfortunately vetoed once it got to former governor, Jerry Brown’s desk. Ward’s plan for the future is to create subsections under current penal code 422, criminal threats. By creating subsections, it allows the justice system to prosecute for specific intent rather than one  encompassing threat. Currently if the department was to run a query on specifics including school threats, nothing would appear because there is no distinction. 

“We need two code sections to get a handle on how many schools are dealing with threats,” Ward said. “We also need to have a misdemeanor crime of making a statement that has the effect of causing a reaction by the school.” 

Ward said the crime of criminal threats is considered a “specific intent” crime and prosecutors must prove the suspect intended the statement to be understood as a threat. The threat must also be “sufficiently clear, immediate and unconditional” along with the requirement that the victim be placed in sustained fear for his/her safety or for the safety of his/her immediate family. He said there is no specific language in this section which considers the safety of the student body or faculty. 

As a career prosecutor, Ward said the most frustrating part of proving a crime is navigating prior judicial limitations that limit their ability to hold offenders accountable. Courts have ruled it is not a crime for one student to email a friend fantasises about torturing and killing another student.

While I have always championed our Constitutional rights, including free speech, it appears the archaic laws in California, written in the late 80’s, have not sufficiently evolved to deal with the phenomenon of modern social media,” Ward said in his statement. “This can’t continue.”

Ward said predictive behavior needs to be at the very least tracked and prosecuted. His office takes animal cruelty cases seriously. In Tulare County the cases are rare, but he can find a common theme from animal cruelty cases growing to more violent and dangerous criminal conduct.

“We need a holistic approach, involving all community and family stakeholders,” Ward said. “Schools, mental health professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors, members of the community need to be communicating and building a web so that no dangerous person can slip through and harm innocent children.”

Juvenile cases prove to be extra challenging for prosecutors because their privacy is considered sacred. Ward believes school personnel have a right to be in criminal proceedings regarding their students.

“When did a juvenile offender’s privacy get to the point of out-weighing the search for truth?” Ward said. 

The answer to the overall problem at hand is a difficult one, but Ward said in addition to adjusting the penal code to reflect either a threat against a school/student body or threats made between students on campus, there is an additional area of focus: social media. 

“We have to change the law and meet the ever-changing landscape of social media,” Ward said. “Laws must be created that acknowledge it’s not simply an “I was kidding” situation when a school receives threats which reasonably require action to protect the students, faculty and provide some semblance of peace of mind to parents.”

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