Legislature Looks to Crack Down on False Bomb Threats

After a string of bomb threats targeting Texas colleges, lawmakers want to make similar hoaxes a felony offense.

Legislature Looks to Crack Down on False Bomb Threats

On the rainy morning of September 14, 2012, UT’s official Twitter account sent this update:

It was about an hour after a campus-wide email and text alert system told students, faculty, and staff to evacuate the campus. Someone had called in a bomb threat and administrators took it seriously enough to evacuate tens of thousands of people from the Forty Acres. A similar threat was reported around the same time about 1,400 miles due north at North Dakota State University.

The University eventually shut down for the day, and students who had waited under umbrellas on the Drag went home. Social networks exploded with rumor, complaints, and occasional irreverence. Media descended onto campus—or as close to it as they could get. Every building on campus was searched. It came to light that around 8:35 a.m. someone claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida called the University and threatened to set off multiple bombs within 90 minutes.

It turned out to be a hoax.

In the wake of the incident, University administrators did their best to explain how they decided to empty such a large campus for an entire business day. In the end, administrators had to make a judgement call about the viability of the threat and the corresponding danger to the campus community.

Making that kind of tough decision has become increasingly common for university administrators across the country, and increasingly irksome to Texas legislators. This month alone, bomb threats have affected at least 10 colleges and universities in the United States. Earlier this month, Dereon Tayronne Kelley was convicted of making a false threat involving an explosive device at Texas State University in San Marcos. He faces similar charges for a threat made at Texas A&M University.

Legislators, including state Rep. Elliot Naishtat (D-Austin), whose district encompasses the UT-Austin campus, want to enact more severe penalties for Kelley and criminals like him. Currently, reporting a false emergency is a felony for primary and secondary schools, public transportation, and other utilities, but not at institutions of higher education.

House Bill 1248 would add colleges to the list, bumping the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony, and inflicting harsher penalties on those convicted of bomb threats at Texas colleges. The measure was sent to the state Senate Thursday, after being passed by the House of Representatives, 142-1, on Wednesday. The measure is expected to find support in the Senate, and among the public.

“I think it should be more than just a misdemeanor,” UT-El Paso student Priscilla Avalos told KFOX El Paso. UT-El Paso was the site of a false bomb threat in 2012. “There are a lot of things that are less harmful to us that are given more time, and more punishment,” Avalos said.

Photo courtesy SalFalko via Flickr Creative Commons.


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