Published April 6, 2005
LANSING (AP) — Michigan’s use of an anti-terrorism law to curb school violence has sparked debate over the law’s intent and raised an important question among prosecutors, school officials and others: When is a troubled teen a terrorist?
Law enforcement officials say the law against threatening terrorism, enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, gives them a vital tool to avert shootings like the one last month in Minnesota, where a student shot and killed nine people before turning the gun on himself.
With no specific state law against threatening to kill someone, law enforcement official say, the terrorism law is the only one that works.
But many school-violence experts say labeling a disturbed or angry teen a terrorist is going overboard. In some cases, they say, what the student needs is psychological help, not jail time.
“(We have to) discern between students who pose a threat and students who are making threats,” said Glenn Stutzky, a clinical instructor at the Michigan State University School of Social Work. “It appears the terrorism law doesn’t make that distinction.”
Two Michigan cases, one in Macomb County northeast of Detroit and one in adjoining Oakland County, appear to be among the first in the country where terrorism laws are being applied to school violence.
One involves a 17-year old accused of threatening to bring a gun to school to kill a school liaison officer and whose home, when checked by police, revealed a cache of firearms, ammunition, bomb-making materials and instructions, Nazi flags and books about white supremacy and Adolf Hitler.
Andrew Osantowski of Macomb County’s Clinton Township was arrested last September after authorities received a tip from an Idaho girl who had been exchanging messages with Osantowski over the Internet. He has been charged as an adult and faces up to 20 years in prison.
The other case involves a 14-year-old whose backpack contained a notebook with a “kill list” that included a dozen people, including his mother, several students and school officials.
A police search of Mark David O’Berry’s home in Oakland County’s White Lake Township in mid-March found no weapons, and he has denied making the list. He is being dealt with as a juvenile and could be held until age 19 if found guilty.
Prosecutors in both cases say they used the state’s terrorism law because no other charge applied.
Macomb County Assistant Prosecutor Steve Kaplan said he could have charged Osantowski with attempted murder but did not think he could prove it.
“Essentially you have to show he was on his way to school with the guns and was thwarted. It didn’t fit,” said Kaplan, who also has charged Osantowski with using a computer to make terrorist threats. “We would not have gotten a conviction.”
Oakland County Assistant Prosecutor Bob Zivian said he turned to the terrorism law in the O’Berry case for the same reason.
“Until we know what makes this young man tick and can get a psychological evaluation on him, we’re just doing what we can to protect the public and even his own mother, who’s No. 1 on the hit list,” Zivian said.
O’Berry’s court-appointed attorney, Ryan Deel of Troy, said he does not like seeing youths inappropriately labeled as terrorists.
“We know what kind of terrorist attack the Legislature was trying to protect us from, (and it’s) not from children,” Deel said. “When the public thinks of terrorists, they don’t think of a 14-year-old boy.”
Some school-violence experts differ over whether prosecutors should be charging students with terrorism and say they’ve heard of few instances of similar laws used against students in other states.
William Lassiter, a school safety specialist with the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., said prosecutors are “using the wrong type of terminology.”
“You’re talking about a student who needs help and services more so than jail,” he said, noting that “hit lists” often are drawn up by students who are bullied.
“These kids don’t feel like school officials are helping them, so they’re taking measures into their own hands,” Lassiter said.
Judith Shell, a consultant for the Oakland County Intermediate School District, said young people often act impulsively and don’t consider the ramifications of their actions.
“If their (prosecutors’) goal is to get a child help, there certainly are a lot of other avenues,” said Shell, who has helped develop guidelines for assessing students’ dangerous and threatening behavior. “I don’t think the terrorism act was ever meant to play that role.”
But Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., said the law would be a good choice in some cases.
“This can be very intimidating to students and teachers, knowing their name was on a hit list,” he said.
State Rep. William Van Regenmorter, who as a state senator in 2002 helped push through an anti-terrorism package, said he thinks the law is serving its purpose.
He said what happened in Columbine and Minnesota shows that “very young people can commit what clearly can be considered terrorist acts.”
“I think this falls within the Legislature’s intent, with the understanding that there is a process where the court can separate those who are truly dangerous from those who are not,” the Hudsonville Republican said.