Judicial treatment, punishment for bomb threat perpetrators varies

lfalce@centredaily.comApril 19, 2014 

A bomb threat note is found in a school. The students are secured. The police are called. The building is searched.

Those steps are pretty easy to follow. They are common-sense dominoes falling in line. But what happens after that?

One student at Philipsburg-Osceola Middle School is learning that lesson now.

A 14-year-old boy at the Chester Hill school was arrested Thursday after administration and police determined he was the culprit behind a bomb threat that morning, a simple piece of lined notebook paper with “I’m gonna blow up this place at 1:15” written in childish script with a pencil.

It took Principal Kelly Rees and Assistant Principal Brian Pelka less than five minutes to match the handwriting on the note to handwriting from the suspect on another paper he had turned into the office. No in-depth crime scene analysis was required. Superintendent Gregg Paladina said the boy admitted to the note when confronted.

It was the third such note at a P-O school in three days. Two others were found on bathroom walls at the high school the two days prior.

After the first day, Paladina said he feared the behavior going viral. Part of preventing that is a stern response.

“We will prosecute to the fullest extent,” Paladina said.

The charge under Pennsylvania criminal code is terroristic threats. For an adult, including a student old enough to be tried as an adult, arrest would be followed by arraignment in a district judge’s office, the setting of bail, and if bail couldn’t be posted, a trip to county jail. Then preliminary hearings, months of lag time that might be spent in jail, and either a plea or a trial, possibly followed by probation or more jail time.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said the process is similar, but with notable differences, for juveniles.

She spoke about the potential crimes and punishments theoretically, as her office has not seen charges in the P-O case. The middle school student’s arrest happened in Clearfield County, and the high school perpetrators have not yet been identified.

“It’s a very serious matter,” she said. A judge can recommend a minor be removed from the home at the outset of a case. If the defendant doesn’t admit to the crimes, the case would proceed to a trial before a judge rather than a whole jury. If the judge finds the child guilty, the judge would decide how to go from there, and that’s where things get very different.

Unlike an adult case, there is no prescribed sentence, said Parks Miller. It is called disposition, and it is very subjective, decided on a case-by-case basis. It might be a consent decree, juvenile court’s version of a diversionary program. There might be juvenile probation. There might even be placement, meaning a minor is removed from the home and placed in a facility. Any of those might happen for six months before being revisited.

“But you start with six months. That is no guarantee that it will only be six months,” said Parks Miller.

After that, a judge can revisit the case and decide if more or different treatment is required.

The goal is rehabilitation more than punishment.

A teen might claim there was no harm. There was no bomb. It was just a prank. That is not an argument apt to work.

“Even if it is the idea that it’s a joke, the lack of understanding leads to questions,” said Parks Miller.

Paladina said he is not relying just on the criminal justice system for punishment. The district will be pursuing its own, as well.

According to P-O’s adopted policy on student discipline, “The board may either expel for a period exceeding 10 school days or may permanently expel from the district rolls any student whose misconduct and disobedience warrants this sanction.” Bomb threats are one of 12 infractions specifically spelled out as potentially expellable offenses.

Paladina said the district is reviewing video surveillance footage of the hallways leading up to the discovery of the high school notes and that action on the person or persons responsible there is “imminent.”

In the meantime, additional manpower is being expended to cut down on any more copycat crimes.

That extra expense, including the cost of emergency response and other losses, can be assessed to the defendant as restitution costs.

“People are always responsible for the cost of their crimes. We do seek that,” said Parks Miller.

The bottom line is that what starts as a prank, a dare, a way to get out of a sixth-period math test, is not worth it.

“A bomb threat is not a joke. These happen around the world for real every day. It’s not funny,” said Parks Miller.

Lori Falce can be contacted at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFalce.

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