PADUCAH, KY — You don't have to be a terrorist to be charged with terroristic threatening. Local law enforcement agencies are reminding students that school threats come with real consequences.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, principals across Kentucky sent out letters to students and their families outlining the recently updated second-degree terroristic threatening law. With the amendment, it's now easier for your child to be charged with a felony for saying, writing, or posting a picture of something that causes others to fear for their safety at school. It's part of a statewide crackdown on what districts say is a growing number of students making terroristic threats.
Calloway County Sheriff's Office Deputy Brandon Gallimore is in his 11th year as a school resource officer. He says a lot has changed in a decade, including the way students make threats.
"Now we're seeing a lot of people posing with guns or weapons, making vague threats like, 'Just you wait,'" says Gallimore. "People may think, 'Oh, you're overreacting. It's a child doing childish things,' but times have changed, and the way we deal with these things have changed."
Under Kentucky's second-degree terroristic threatening law, if a student says, does, or posts something causing an evacuation, cancellation, or fear, they will be charged with a felony.
Ballard County Attorney Vicki Hayden says when a student goes in front of a judge for making a threat, they rarely take responsibility for their actions. "They don't think they did anything wrong," she says. "'I didn't really mean it. Everybody knows me. I wouldn't do anything like that.' I would like to see some remorse. I would like to see a parent stand up and say, 'It was wrong, what my child did, and we're going to work on this at home.' Parents can't say, 'It won't happen here, my child wouldn't do that.' Those attitudes aren't going to work anymore."
Hayden says that's especially in west Kentucky, where there have been two deadly school shootings in 20 years — at Heath High School on Dec. 1, 1997, then at Marshall County High School on Jan. 23, 2018.
"Wake up," says Hayden. "Wake up. Your child's not perfect, and you are not a perfect parent. None of us are. But these are the kind of things that you cannot afford to take lightly. I mean, if you were to ask Michael Carneal's parent's or Gabriel Parker's parents that this was going to happen, I'd be really curious to hear what they'd have to say."
In the three months following the Marshall County High School shooting, Kentucky schools reportedly investigated 294 terroristic threats.
Hayden's not sure why the number of terroristic threats seems to be going up across the state, but she does know kids aren't taking it seriously. And what has already happened twice could happen a third time. "Or a fourth, or a fifth," says Hayden. "I'm not willing to take that chance. I know our sheriff's department here is not willing. Our administrators and our teachers are not willing."
Ballard County Schools Superintendent Casey Allen says before the era of school shootings, kids were calling in bomb threats to get out of testing and leaving notes in the bathroom as a prank. Now, he says, it's no joke.
"It's almost so sad that I don't want to say it, but I have heard this culture, this age of students referred to as the school shooting culture," says Allen. "That's sad, but previous cultures didn't have to deal with that concern when you were sitting in school."
Earlier this school year, Ballard County was on high alert following several rumored threats.
"We had a rough two weeks, and it started with a threat that was reported, investigated, and there was found to be some merit in that, and then we had two weeks of multiple reports of things that were not factual," says Allen. "So law enforcement and the school took every one of them seriously and spent a lot of time investigating."
When it comes to investigating a threat, it's all hands on deck. But in smaller counties, that's not very many hands.
Carlisle County Sheriff Will Gilbert says they have two full-time law enforcement members on staff, and he's one of them.
"Any threat to the school or rumor of a threat automatically takes priority," says Gilbert.
When they need reinforcements, Gilbert says they call in the jailer and volunteers. "The whole community suffers a drain from it," he says.
Before becoming sheriff, Gilbert spent two decades with the Paducah Police Department. You'll find his name on several reports investigating students making terroristic threats at local schools.
"It's an unfortunate reality that we've become desensitized," says Gilbert. "For me, I have two school-aged children as well, and with my past connections with Heath and Marshall County, those things tend to hit home. And you worry about your own children as well."
Dr. Sarah Shelton is a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist with ties to western Kentucky. She says young people can be very reactive when they feel strong emotions.
"When they feel strong emotions, like anger, they are more likely than an adult to act on that behaviorally — by either making a threat or engaging in violence — than an adult whose brain is fully developed and has a better ability to self regulate those same emotions."
Since August of 2017, 360 terroristic threats were made at local schools in west Kentucky. Of those, 85 resulted in charges. If students made those threats today, Gallimore says you can bet each one would go in front of a judge.
"Whether it's legit or not, if you make that threat, unfortunately you're going to get charged," says Gallimore. "Whether it's liable or not, because it's something you just don't do."
Click here to read Kentucky's second-degree terroristic threatening law in full.