Calling in a hoax threat of a school shooting could soon be a felony in Utah

The proposed change to Utah law comes after at least five Utah school were targeted by fake threats in the spring.

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, introduces legislation that would classify all school hoaxes and threats as felonies on Wednesday, August 9, 2023.

At least five Utah schools were the victim of false shooting reports this spring — setting off massive police responses and unleashing panic among students, teachers and parents.

The widespread chaos around that day has now led Utah lawmakers to consider how it can stem those kind of fake calls. Whether meant as a prank or even a way for a student to get out of a test, anybody reporting a hoax threat to a school could soon be charged with a felony in Utah.

“[Hoaxes and threats] have taken a turn in our country and in our world,” said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, who is drafting the legislation. “And it arises to a different level than we might have considered a prank in the past.”

Wilcox presented the idea Wednesday during a news conference on school safety held at the Capitol.

Currently, the way Utah law charges threats varies “depending on the delivery,” Wilcox said. For example, someone calling in a threat to “prevent or interrupt the occupancy of the school or a portion of the school, or a facility or vehicle used by the school” is classified as a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable up to six months in jail and fines up to $1,000.

The proposed bill would elevate all distinctions to a second-degree felony, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.

“After this piece of legislation, that will be uniform,” he said. “... There will be serious consequences for engaging in this kind of terroristic activity.”

Hoax school shooting calls have risen in recent years in Utah, Wilcox added, and across the country — along with real mass shootings.

With the fake threat in March to Ogden High School, Ogden police Chief Eric Young said, about 50 officers from every agency in Weber County responded, as well as some agencies outside the county, too.

“It was troubling because I knew how much distress and trauma this was causing not just for the first responders, but especially for the students, faculty and the administration of that school and other schools,” Young said.

Law enforcement takes every threat seriously and investigates each one thoroughly, added Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson.

“We owe it to the state to be within a safe environment, especially for our children,” he said.

But responding to fake threats, especially, eats up resources and costs taxpayers. Outside of schools, hoaxes and threats also put strain on the state’s health care system, said Chris Dallin of Intermountain Health.

When the hoax calls happened in March, Dallin said, protocols suggested they cancel surgeries and bring in more staff and nurses since they were told they’d be seeing a number of emergency victims.

“The situation created an inconvenience for patients and caregivers that cost time and resources and concern for many,” Dallin said.

Wilcox said he ultimately wants the punishment for a hoax threat to match the impact.

“It’s the entire community,” he said. “It’s the long-term impact for anybody that knows or loves those kids and those teachers, which is every community in our state.”