Citrus Co. official pushes to make verbal threats illegal

Momentum is building for Florida lawmakers to change the law regarding threats of mass violence.

Under current law, written - or otherwise documented - threats are a second-degree felony.

After several verbal threats of mass violence, some are looking at whether those types of language should be punishable, as well.

Right now, if a threat is scribbled on a bathroom wall, posted on Snapchat, or written in a notebook, the person who wrote the threat can be charged. But if a person tells a sheriff's deputy he intends to "shoot up" an elementary school, the threat is dismissed as free speech. 

Such was the case for Ryan Connell, a Citrus County man being held on other charges, who told corrections deputies he wanted to "shoot up" Inverness Primary School. Investigators say he made similar comments during a jailhouse phone call.

Meanwhile, in Auburndale, three high-schoolers were charged Monday with felonies for leaving a note labeled "school shootings" in a mailbox. The students said the note was part of a "dare."

"Verbal threats, and the world we live in today, are just as serious, and there needs to be a criminal consequence," said Douglas Dodd, a member of the Citrus County School Board and of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission.

There have been varying charges against students and adults accused of making threats during the first weeks of school.

Last week, in Hillsborough County, a 12-year-old girl was charged for making a threat on Snapchat about a shooting at Burns Middle School. However, earlier this month a man with a history of mental illness was investigated but not charged for an alleged verbal threat to stab children at Bellamy Elementary.

An 18-year-old student at Gibbs High School in Pinellas County was charged with making a false report of a bomb or firearm to conduct bodily harm after he allegedly made a threatening comment in his class, in front of an adult and other students.

Dodd says he is going to push the MSD Commission at its October meeting to recommend the legislature add verbal threats to the statute that covers anything written or posted on social media.

"This would be a good time for the commission to address the situation that we face here in Citrus County," Dodd said.

Connell is being held on charges of damaging sheriff's office property, but the sheriff says when he is released, he will be closely monitored by deputies.