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Bill that proposes stiffer penalties for threats to school, sports officials advances

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(The Center Square) – A bill that calls for stiffer penalties for interference or intimidation by threats or use of force at schools and athletic activities in Washington state gained unanimous approval in the House of Representatives Tuesday and now advances to the Senate for consideration.

House Bill 2079 was introduced by state Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, out of concern over increased incidents of violence committed against officials by angry athletes, family members, and fans.

“What I’m trying to do with this bill is say, ‘Hey, listen, there is some penalty for this to try to keep people’s violent behavior in check,” Schmidt told a House Republican Communications broadcast last month.

Schmidt recounted how her friend, Bob West, was once attacked by a high school athlete while refereeing a wrestling match. West testified before the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry Committee, saying the proposal would address a growing decline in sportsmanship.

On Thursday, the measure was referred to the Senate Committee for Early Learning & K-12 Education.

As proposed, the bipartisan measure would make it a felony to commit school-related crimes of “interference by force or violence” and “intimidation by threat of force or violence.” They would be considered Class C felonies with potential penalties ranging up to five years of incarceration and fines up to $10,000.

Currently, the two offenses are considered gross misdemeanors punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. The crimes apply to persons who threaten or forcefully interfere with a school teacher, administrator, classified or contract employee, or another student in the “peaceful discharge or conduct” of their duties or studies.

Along with Schmidt, the bill has support from fellow Spokane Valley Republican Rep. Leonard Christian, Spokane Democrats Timm Ormsby and Marcus Riccelli, and Republicans Sam Low of Lake Stevens, Mark Klicker of Walla Walla, Stephanie McClintock of Vancouver, and Travis Couture of Allyn.

Nationwide, there are increasing reports of threats and violence against youth sports officials, committed by parents and sometimes the athletes themselves, with referee associations seeing an exodus of officials as a result.

Last month, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which oversees prep sports in this state, and Washington Officials Association announced they are launching a pilot project using body cameras on basketball referees. The initiative will continue with soccer, baseball, and fastpitch softball officials for the remainder of the 2023-24 school year.

State rules now allow school districts to remove a student if there is sufficient cause to believe he or she poses an immediate or ongoing danger to others, or an immediate or ongoing threat to substantially disrupt the educational process. Under HB 2079, a student who interferes by force or violence during an extracurricular sports activity could be excluded or banned from that activity for up to one year. Likewise, a convicted person other than a student could be banned from entering the school where the offense occurred for up to 12 months.

If enacted, the bill would take effect 90 days after the current legislative session adjourns, which is scheduled for March 7.