Is a new Missouri law really about to turn schoolyard fights into felonies?
That's what a number of high-profile news outlets have reported, prompted by several school districts issuing dire warnings over several new statutes in the state's criminal code set to go in effect on January 1, 2017 which "may have a drastic impact on how incidents are handled" in Missouri schools. Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Joseph Davis even posted a Youtube video warning students and parents that "a simple fight may follow you for the rest of your life."
At issue is the language defining third-degree assault, which could make a felon out of any person if that person "knowingly causes physical injury to another person."
Another issue concerns the newly defined fourth-degree assault. Thanks to an anti-bullying law already on the books, bullying on school grounds "including gestures, or oral, cyberbullying, electronic, or written communication," are considered harassment and must be reported by school authorities or school resource officers (SROs). The new definition of fourth degree assault could lead to such harassment being prosecuted as a felony.
The well-publicized fear is that the new statutes could mean a simple scrum at the bus stop, or a hyperactive kid pulling another student's hair, could imbue children with the stain of serious criminal charges from which they can never make themselves clean.
Reason has long covered the increased use of SROs, which are uniformed police officers assigned to schools, and how their very presence in institutions of learning inevitably leads to an overcriminalization of minor infractions (like treating farting in class as an actual crime) and disproportionately sends lower income and minority students into the school-to-prison pipeline.
But a closer comparison of the new Missouri law with current state law reveals little will change in how school violence is prosecuted. In fact, it may actually be the case that school fights will be less likely to be prosecuted as felonies than they were before.
St. Louis Public Radio reports that it is already a felony in Missouri to "knowingly cause physical injury on school property." However, the new law replaces the previous statute which has specific language regarding violence on school grounds.
Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Prosecutors Association, told St. Louis Public Radio:
"Despite some news stories to the contrary, the revision actually narrows the instances in which routine assaults will be considered felonies," Fite said. "It doesn't expand it."
"Currently an assault on school property is an automatic felony, and so it's not the conduct that makes it a felony, it's the location where it occurs," Fite added.
Elad Gross, a former Missouri assistant attorney general and current President and CEO of Education Exchange Corps, wrote in a blog post that he worries the narrative being spun by the media coverage of the new laws is both misleading and will ultimately harm the very students most at risk:
These stories have taken advantage of a group of folks who are subject to grave inadequacies in our judicial system. There is no question that far too many kids are caught up in a system that too often does not treat them fairly. But, instead of talking about the real issues underlying the school-to-prison pipeline, these media outlets are inciting panic, which will inevitably dissuade folks from joining an important fight when they realize this story of terrifying change actually has no merit.
The more the boy cried wolf, the less people listened.
In a phone interview with Reason, Gross says the new definition of third degree assault "deletes any reference to schools." This means that under the new statute, two drunks who get into a fistfight at a hockey game could be prosecuted for third-degree felony assault, which is not the case under the current statute. Gross added that the new statute also sets a higher standard for the definition of "physical injury."
Writing in The St. Louis American, Gross says he spoke with (among others) prosecutors, the St. Louis County police, and the St. Louis City's Juvenile Office and came to the conclusion that the confusion over the new laws likely began with a miscommunication between the Hazelwood School District and local law enforcement over how the new statutes would be applied. Gross writes that this led to the school district issuing its warning over the new statutes to parents and students just before the holiday break. From there, the story took off in the media with the narrative that misbehaving Missouri kids were suddenly at risk for prison.
Gross concedes that confusion abounds because of "inaccessible, hard to follow, not very intuitive" language in the laws, as well as the fact that the new, lower charge of fourth-degree assault replaces much of what was previously defined as third-degree assault, which creates the impression that third-degree assault now carries harsher penalties for students. Gross tells Reason, "The new law isn't going to be changing much, but that doesn't mean the old ways were super great."
Part of this is because schools that employ SROs—which are typically higher-risk schools—don't have the same leeway as other schools to impose discipline for scuffles or other altercations between students. If an SRO witnesses an incident, the officer has to intervene, which greatly increases the chances of criminal charges being filed against a student.
Ultimately, the issue of overcriminalizing kids isn't going to be solved by Missouri's new statutes, but it certainly doesn't appear to be a deliberate or even indirect attempt at making it easier to create felons out of wayward students.