School safety, places of worship bill fails short session
When a threat was made to Lake Oswego High School last March by a Newberg man who claimed to have guns and other weapons, Lake Oswego resident Michelle Smigel decided she'd had enough.
Though her son did not attend LOHS, his preschool was placed on lockout during the incident.
"It really drove home the point that we can do more and we should do more," Smigel said.
Shortly after the incident, she was motivated to create the nonprofit organization Safe Neighborhoods for Oregon — a group of nonpartisan Oregonians who undertake efforts to ensure public safety, particularly in the realm of schools.
Drafting House Bill 4145 (2020) in collaboration with one of the bill's chief sponsors Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, is the first legislative effort Safe Neighborhoods for Oregon has undertaken.
The bill, which was brought before the House Judiciary Committee Feb. 10, would ensure that mental health treatment is available and funded in all counties for adults who threaten schools or places of worship like churches, synagogues and nonresidential areas that are customarily associated with religious practices.
The bill did not pass in the short session, but its efforts are still on the table.
"My hope is then it will have a good chance of passing in the (next) session. They just wanted a little bit more data on the types of threats, how often are there these types of threats being made," Smigel said. "I do not think that this is all that is needed in order to address school safety obviously, or safety to our places of worship; rather this, in my view, would just be a very good first step."
Smigel said the testimony was positive and there are several people and organizations in support, including Rep. Andrea Salinas, whose district covers most of Lake Oswego.
The Oregon Education Association showed support on behalf of its 45,000 members.
"Our teachers and education support professionals believe that it is well past time to respond to escalating violence that emanates from the troubled minds of alienated and angry people, not just with jail, but also with mental health assessments, which may unearth underlying illness that could respond to treatment," said Laurie Wimmer, OEA government relations consult, in her testimony. "Our students are looking to the adults in charge to take meaningful steps to keep them safe. It shouldn't (take) a mass movement of young people to make that happen.
"In addition to keeping weapons out of the hands of those who seek to harm others, this bill proposes to do just exactly what gun advocates advise: assess the person for mental illness."
Smigel said that after looking at a comprehensive report on school shootings compiled by the United States Secret Service in 2019, it's clear that most individuals who carry out a violent attack have made prior threats.
"If we can identify the individual at the stage at which a threat is made and help them to seek mental health treatment, hopefully it would help prevent an escalation of their behavior," Smigel said. "Also it seems like it could be mutually beneficial — both to help the individual not to escalate to a felony or do something more egregious, and also help the community to keep our students more safe."
According to the U.S. Secret Service Analysis of Targeted School Violence, 89% of attackers displayed concerning behaviors observed by others like threats to cause harm, violent acts, bringing weapons to school, and suicidal statements.
Smigel often wondered about what happens to the people who are charged with making threats to schools or places of worship.
"What I learned in working with some of the other attorneys on the nonprofit board, we kind of discovered that there is what I would call a gap in existing Oregon law because these kinds of threats are most commonly charged under disorderly conduct, which you would typically think about as, for example, a bar fight," Smigel said. "It's not really language that makes a lot of sense sometimes in this context because, for example, one of the elements is that the threat be false, but what if it's a true threat or what if we don't know? It kind of has this awkward requirement that the prosecutor prove that the threat is false so that didn't make sense to me."
HB 4145 works to close that gap in current law that applies only to false threats." In addition to any other sentence imposed on the person convicted of making a threat, it would require the person receive supervised probation and a mental health evaluation as directed by the supervising officer.
The current law allows for a juvenile to be held in detention prior to adjudication. That pre-adjudication process could involve a mental health evaluation, but HB 4145 would require youth receive an evaluation and treatment, if necessary, after they are convicted. Under the most recent amendment to HB 4145, anyone under 18 could not be charged with the felony of threatening a school or place of worship.
"The goal is we don't want to create a pipeline to felony convictions. We want to create a path to treatment," said Smigel, adding that she doesn't want it to be punitive in nature, but rather more constructive.
West Linn High School football coach Keanon Lowe, who disarmed a student who brought a gun to Parkrose High School last year, also testified in support of HB 4145.
"In the current climate where threats against schools and places of worship are increasingly common, I believe we should do all we can to ensure that when a threat is made we respond in a way that keeps our community safe and provides resources and mental health treatment for people who need it," Lowe said in his testimony. "I know from firsthand experience how important intervention and communication can be in order to stop a person from acting out in a violent manner. That is why I support House Bill 4145."
Rep. Tawna Sanchez, chair of the Judiciary Committee, ordered a work group staffed by members of the Judiciary Committee and the Department of Justice to refine and research the legislation presented before the committee for the 2021 legislative session.
"When it comes to addressing threats to our schools and places of worship, we need to make sure that our policies are as fair and effective as possible, and that is what this workgroup will allow us to do," Neron said in an email to the Review. "Securing a fully staffed workgroup with experts from the Department of Justice and the House Judiciary Committee to further develop HB 4145 is a win. Many bills die in the Legislature without getting this level of support from a committee and/or agency."
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