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School Fights Could Expose Children as Young as 5 to Felony Charges, Thanks to New Missouri Law

Getting into a few schoolyard fights is often seen as a natural part of growing up, but thanks to a new Missouri law, students who engage in such behavior could be subjected to criminal felony charges.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, would turn third-degree assault and certain forms of harassment into Class E felonies, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. If a victim is found to have suffered “emotional distress” as a result of said harassment — which lawmakers have considered a form of bullying — the perpetrator(s) could also be slapped with felony charges.

Now, school districts across the St. Louis area are warning students and their parents to seek proper mediation if they’re having trouble with someone at school, instead of taking matters into their own hands. The decision to fight could be detrimental to their lives going forward.

“A simple fight may follow you for the rest of your life. You have the power to decide if you have a good future full of hope and promise or a future with a criminal record that follows you and limits your options,” Dr. Joseph Davis, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant District, announced in a strongly worded video notice to his students.

The reality of criminally charging schoolchildren with felonies also has some school leaders worried that the new law could fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately impacts Black and Latino students.

“I think that we are working very hard to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, and I think this might inadvertently increase the number of children who are referred to law enforcement,” Kelli Hopkins, a Missouri School Boards’ Association attorney, told the Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis Public Schools spokesman Patrick Wallace echoed Hopkins’ sentiments, stating that his district is very cognizant of the school-to-prison pipeline and does not want to criminalize or punish students given the opportunity.

The newspaper reported that the controversial new legislation stems from a bill passed in 2014 that increased maximum fines for felonies and misdemeanors, creating a fourth degree for assault. Now, students who get into school fights and commit third-degree assault, which is defined as “knowingly causing physical injury to another person,” could face felony charges.

“This is a serious, serious thing for school districts,” said Hopkins, who expressed concern over the law’s loose definition of harassment. She noted that schoolchildren as young as 5 years old could be subjected to harsh punishments for simply calling their classmates a name.

Many school district leaders are still unsure of how they will adjust their discipline practices or report offenses to police once the new statute takes affect next year. According to lawyer Kate Nash, who has worked with over 150 school districts in Missouri, districts usually handle incidents like schoolyard fights according to their own discipline and anti-bullying policies.

However, schools are required to report over a dozen criminal acts to police if committed on school grounds, including drug possession, harassment and assault in the first, second and third degrees, the Post-Dispatch reported.

“You want to follow the law and make sure you’re doing the right thing, but the law is always open to interpretation,” Nash said. “At the same time, educators are balancing the impact this will have on the young person’s life.”

The recent changes to Missouri state law come amid a nationwide push to limit reliance on police and school resource officers to discipline students. The new efforts sought to reduce students’ negative exposure to law enforcement at a young age. In addition, education advocates have argued that replacing school officers with counselors and mediators puts learning institutions one step closer to halting the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We try to treat our students as children,” said Sharifah Williams, spokeswoman for Normandy schools. “We look at law enforcement as something that deals mostly with adults. We don’t want to add anymore people to the pipeline.”

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