(Hartford Courant) Fairfield Sen. Calls for stiffer sanctions against hoax callers

October 27, 2015

Fairfield Sen. Calls for stiffer sanctions against hoax callers
Hartford Courant
Oct. 27, 2015

A legislator from Fairfield says he will push for tougher penalties for people who make threats against schools.

Republican Sen. Tony Hwang, whose son attends one of the schools placed on lockdown last week, said Monday he wants to reintroduce legislation that would toughen sanctions against perpetrators.

“In the past, these kind of prank phone calls occurred – youngsters, out of boredom or out of mischief, would make these kind of calls,” Hwang said. “I believe we have moved to another sphere … people who are looking to undermine our sense of safety and really focus on an area where the most vulnerable, our children, and the most safe, our schools, are under attack.”

In the years since the Newtown school shootings in 2012, a series of hoaxes have disrupted schools across Connecticut, in some cases creating a massive SWAT presence and causing lockdowns.

Bristol schools closed for nearly a week last year amid repeated bomb threats that were scrawled on notepaper and bathroom stall doors. Sandy Hook Elementary School was evacuated in October 2014 after the town received its second hoax call since the December 2012 massacre.

Southington High School sent students home in December after a bomb threat was posted on the social media app, Yik Yak. Seventeen Fairfield schools were locked down on Friday in what was ultimately determined to be a hoax.

Hwang announced Monday that he plans to reintroduce the Zero-Tolerance Safe School Environment Act, a bill that would increase first-degree threatening from a class D felony to a class C felony — changing the maximum sanctions of five years imprisonment and $5,000 to 10 years imprisonment and $10,000. Second-degree threatening, currently a class A misdemeanor, would become a class D felony. Last session, the legislation cleared the Senate, but was not brought to the floor for a vote in the House.

Fairfield police Chief Gary MacNamara said the threats in his community last week likely would merit a first-degree threatening charge.

“The fear that our children feel … is real,” he said. “Everything about a threat against the school is real … and the penalty should reflect that.”

MacNamara also expressed concern that threats could lead to a “boy who cried wolf” mentality. “Every time we have a threat we amp up our response,” he said. “Although it improves our response, it certainly dulls people’s senses.”

“This is not just a threat,” he said. “It sends people into such a whirlwind, you can’t dismiss it as just a threat.”

Hwang said he wants the legislature to send a message “that these types of behavior are unacceptable at any level. The increase in penalty, I hope, will accompany an increase in awareness, in letting people know that we as a society and a community won’t tolerate this abuse of our safety and our privacy and our opportunity to learn in school.”

Hwang described lockdown situations at Fairfield schools last week, saying that students were crammed into rooms filled with close to 100 people, had to turn lights off, lie low and not move for more than three hours. Educators and administrators had to create makeshift bathroom facilities, and students had to deal with messages from social media and news media about what was happening in their town.

“The Fairfield threat brought this back to bear, but really it was an impetus by advocates that were parents in Newtown who experienced these kinds of threats the year before,” Hwang said.