Idaho legislators focused much of their attention Friday morning on school safety.
After nearly an hour’s debate, the House passed a school safety bill designed to criminalize online threats and threats made off school grounds.
Pushed by Rep. Patrick McDonald, a Boise Republican and retired U.S. marshal, House Bill 665, would make it a misdemeanor to direct a willful threat of violence at schools, buses, staff or students, no matter how the threat is communicated.
McDonald said the change is necessary to combat the increasing number of threats that originate on social media, in chat rooms and off the physical school grounds.
“The current statute only allows for threats made on school grounds,” McDonald said. “This is a way to overcome this problem, this loophole where someone can make a threat and arm themselves with a weapon and intent to carry out a threat.”
McDonald and law enforcement officials have said police investigated 14 threats to Boise schools over a two-week period, and that the bill was drafted in response to specific threats in Idaho.
The bill also would make it a felony for a person to make a threat and then knowingly possess “a deadly or dangerous weapon in a furtherance of carrying out a threat.”
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That provision troubled some House conservatives, who tried unsuccessfully to send the bill out for amendments. Several of them worried that language could lead to felony charges against a small child who threatens classmates while carrying a scout’s small pocket knife, a fork from the cafeteria or a rock from the playground.
“Rocks can be dangerous weapons,” said Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg. “Are we going to call them felons now because they got mad, or were involved in a game, and said, ‘I gonna kill you.’”
Supporters said HB 665 would not turn children who pick up rocks or carry small pocket knives into felons.
“We not talking about kids on the playground getting in a punching match,” said Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. “We’re talking about somebody making a threat against a school and then, in furtherance of that threat, showing up with a deadly weapon. This is really crystal clear to me.”
In the end, the House voted 52-12 to pass the bill. HB 655 heads to the Senate next. The bill contains an emergency clause that would make it effective as soon as it is signed into law. Most bills normally don’t become effective until July 1.
School safety update
First thing Friday, before the school safety bill vote, the House Education Committee received a briefing from the nearly two-year-old Office of School Safety and Security.
Manager Brian Armes reported that his office is in the middle of a three-year effort to conduct onsite school safety and threat assessments at each of the state’s public schools and charters.
So far, the office has visited 330 schools and conducted more than 600 hours of training for principals and school boards.
The Office of School Safety and Security focuses on identifying vulnerabilities, identifying behavioral threats proactively and promoting conversations and alliances between schools, communities and law enforcement.
The group’s specific findings and threat assessments are exempt from public disclosure under Idaho law. Armes did not release general, aggregated findings either. He stressed that his field officers encounter a variety of school structures – from wired, modern 21st Century facilities to 1920s-era schools that have few electrical outs and poor technology infrastructure.
During the onsite assessments, a field officer also attempts to enter the school unannounced and walk around to see how adults respond to an unknown visitor in the halls.
“Across the state, it is wildly variant,” Armes said. “It’s just all over the charts.”
During the meeting, Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked Armes what he thought of proposals to arm school teachers — a practice already in place in some Idaho schools.
Armes said local school boards are in the best position to make such decisions, and he doesn’t try to push them one way or another.
“I’ll be honest with you. As a former educator … the thought of ever having to shoot one of my own students (who is carrying out an attack) would be devastating,” said Armes, a longtime elementary school teacher and principal. “Even if you gave me a firearm, I am not sure what I would be able to do.”
Late-session tax bill emerges
Another tax cut is in the legislative pipeline — but not without some political fireworks.
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted to print a bill to increase a child tax credit. The $25 million proposal is a late-session attempt to appease critics of an omnibus tax bill headed to Gov. Butch Otter’s desk.
House Bill 463 — a bill to decrease income tax rates and comply with the 2016 federal tax overhaul — included a $130 child tax credit. But the $130 credit isn’t enough to head off a tax increase for larger households.
The new bill would boost that tax credit to $205. The larger credit should head off a tax increase for some larger households, said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, the bill’s sponsor. But he stopped short of saying the increase would cover every household, because the federal tax overhaul is fraught with questions.
“We won’t know until we see what happens,” said Moyle, R-Star.
Committee critics were skeptical — and questions came from both ends of the political spectrum. Nate and Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, both cited research that suggests the break-even mark is not $205, but considerably higher.
Nate tried to amend the bill to boost the credit to $280. That motion failed on a divided voice vote.
The committee then voted to introduce Moyle’s bill, with the $205 credit intact. The bill is likely to come back to committee for a full hearing.
Committee OKs anti-electioneering bill
An anti-electioneering bill is headed to the Senate floor.
Rep. Jason Monks’ House Bill 620 would prohibit public officials and public entities from using taxpayer resources to campaign.
Monks, R-Nampa, has worked with local government groups on this year’s version of the bill. It has backing from the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Association of Idaho Cities.
Several Senate State Affairs Committee members said they had some reservations about the bill. Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, wondered if this language would have prohibited him from speaking about Propositions 1, 2 and 3, the education referenda voters rejected in 2012.
Still, the committee voted unanimously to endorse HB 620. The bill has already passed the House.
Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert contributed to this report.