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Prosecutor: "This is not a game'

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The teens accused in recent bomb threats and the explosion of a device in Hillsborough schools will be charged as adults.

In a different time, it would have been a prank.

But today, after so many school shootings and the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, a bomb threat at a school can quickly turn from a joke to a crime.

To underscore how seriously officials are taking threats at schools, State Attorney Mark Ober announced Wednesday that he would bring adult charges against the teens accused of making bomb threats at King High and Riverview High, and the teens accused of exploding a small device at Jefferson High.

"This is not a game, and it will not be treated as one," Ober said at a news conference where he stood before TV cameras with Hillsborough County Sheriff Cal Henderson, Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder and public schools Superintendent Earl Lennard.

Ober promised to charge other teens as adults, depending on the circumstances.

"The costly disruption of our educational system must stop," he said.

If convicted, the teens charged Wednesday as adults face penalties ranging from probation to 15 years in prison, and a criminal record that will follow them through life.

While many will get probation, Ober said, the three 15-year-olds accused of rigging a device to explode at Jefferson High last month might face the maximum sentence, even though no one was hurt in the explosion. The device, described as a plastic container stuffed with an explosive mixture, exploded in a communal area of the school.

Ober also warned that he could charge parents as accessories if they try to conceal a threat made by their child.

The get-tough stance immediately opened a debate about how prosecutors should treat kids who get in trouble, especially for crimes that don't cause injury. Only moments after the news conference, television cameras surrounded a critic who attended.

John Sugg, the editor of the Weekly Planet, whose 12-year-old son was charged as a juvenile with making a false bomb threat at Williams Middle School, questioned what would come of treating children as adults.

"I don't know what benefit we are giving society," Sugg said.

At Jefferson High, PTA president Jackie Farris didn't think the 15-year-olds charged with blowing up a device there should be treated like adults.

"Even in today's world where we see some of these kids tried as adults, I don't really know that anything has changed," Farris said. "You want to say it would give them fear . . . but I think if they are going to do it, they are going to do it."

Some studies support her thinking.

"Putting kids that are calling in bomb threats in an adult prison environment will only make the situation worse," said Tonya Aultman-Bettridge, research project director at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, a think tank based in Colorado.

Teens put in prison settings can actually learn bad habits from adult criminals and imitate them, she said.

"When kids are most susceptible to getting involved in criminal activity, we mix them with the criminal element," said Ray Gadd, supervisor of student services for the Pasco County school district. "This punitive, get-tough-on-kids approach doesn't seem to be working."

But Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant of the State Attorney's Office in Pinellas, said adult charges against teenagers can discourage threats. After prosecutors pressed adult charges against a teen who called in a threat in north Pinellas last year, the number of threats seemed to drop off, he said.

"A lot of kids don't appreciate the significance of being charged with a crime, particularly at the adult level," Bartlett said. "It will close a lot of doors."

At his news conference, Ober acknowledged that his tactics might fail, or encourage kids to call in more threats to get attention.

"Only time will tell if it works," he said.

But with the number of threats in Hillsborough far exceeding past years, Ober decided he had to do something. So far this school year, Hillsborough has received 73 bomb threats compared to 63 in the entire 1999-2000 school year.

On Wednesday, there were two more bomb threats.