New bill makes threats against schools, public places a felony

Madison school board postpones police contract renewal

Making a threat against a school or public place in Wisconsin would be a felony under a new bill being circulated by a state lawmaker.

Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, said he’s introducing the bill at the request of a local police chief who dealt with a threat against schools in the community last year.

Reedsburg police arrested 21-year-old Dakota Berndt last May after he posted on his Facebook page that he was going to “shoot up an elementary school.” That prompted police to put security in six schools in town for an entire week while they investigated, and parents pulled more than 200 students out of school.

Police Chief Tim Becker said despite the threat of gun violence, state statutes only allowed them to charge Berndt with disorderly conduct.

“If you have a basic bomb threat called into a location, that’s a felony, and this was a class B misdemeanor,” Becker said. “It didn’t make sense to us.”

So they’ve asked Brooks to draft a new bill to change the definition and penalties for a “terrorist threat.” The bill says if someone intends to cause a public building evacuation, cause public inconvenience, panic or fear, they can be charged with a Class I felony.

“There are these disruptions, and they all have to be taken seriously,” Brooks said. “That involves calling the firemen, calls to police, special dogs come in and things like that. So it’s not a petty crime. It’s something quite serious.”

The threats don’t just disrupt schools, though. University of Wisconsin-Madison police say they are still investigating a threat of a gun at a library Saturday night that forced the evacuation of the Memorial Union Terrace on the busy July 4 holiday.

UW Police Department Spokesman Marc Lovicott said the incident could be charged with as minimal as filing a false report, depending on the outcome of the investigation. They are working with Dane County Communications to identify the caller.

In Reedsburg, the high school’s principal said an increased penalty may help them teach students that threats are not child’s play.

“If it’s a felony, if there’s a fine, if there’s jail time, and it goes on your permanent record, those are deterrents,” Reedsburg High School principal Rob Taylor said.

Brooks is still looking for co-sponsors. It would likely be considered by lawmakers in the fall session.