Court rules against student on off-campus threat

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a case stemming from a threat posted online after last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, an appeals court has rejected a challenge to the prosecution of a teen for disrupting his middle school.

The ruling Wednesday by the 3rd District Court of Appeal focused on whether the Miami Lakes Middle School student should have been shielded from prosecution because he posted the threat while off school grounds.

The teen, identified by the initials O.P-G, was found guilty of violating a law that seeks to prevent "disruption of a school function."

The ruling said the teen's attorneys argued "the fact that the threat was dispatched into cyberspace from an off-campus location is fatal to the integrity of the court's finding of guilt, contending (the law) solely proscribes on-campus actions." Also, the attorneys argued that attempting to regulate off-campus speech made the law unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

But a panel of the Miami-based appeals court rejected the arguments.

"It is not difficult to conceive of any number of scenarios in which materially disruptive behavior would avoid the reach of the statute were we to limit its application to activities physically originating on-campus," said the 19-page ruling, written by Judge Bronwyn Miller and joined by judges Vance Salter and Monica Gordo. "For example, an individual could launch an incendiary device from his window into an adjacent school yard, during school hours while students were outside in physical education class. Despite ensuing panic, untold injuries, and an emergency services response, because the perpetrator did not throw the missile while standing on school grounds, he could not be deemed to have disrupted a school function. The same could be said for a student seeking to interrupt standardized testing by telephoning the school from an off-campus location with a bomb threat hoax."

The ruling came as police, educators and policymakers throughout Florida continue grappling with making schools safer and dealing with potential threats. State lawmakers rushed to place new safety requirements on schools after the February 2018 mass shooting at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.

Police officers were alerted two days after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting to an online post in which a Miami Lakes Middle School student threatened to get "revenge with my guns" at the school after being bullied, Wednesday's ruling said.

The post was tracked to O.P-G, and additional security measures were taken at the school, including patting down student backpacks and positioning security monitors throughout the facility. O.P-G was removed from his classroom and was ultimately found delinquent by a judge on the school-disruption charge.

In the challenge, the teen's attorneys argued that "equal condemnation of both on and off-campus behavior" meant the law was unconstitutionally overbroad, Wednesday's ruling said.

But the court said "the statute limits any punishment for speech to that which causes a disruption to the school functions. Thus, although an offender is not required to initiate the disruption on-campus, the impact is necessarily measured within the geographic boundaries of the school or school-sponsored event. … Moreover ... the regulation punishes only that speech generating disruption, not speech merely intending to effect an impact."