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Schoolyard fights turned felonies?

A letter sent to parents and guardians in the Hazelwood School District has raised concerns about new changes to Missouri’s assault laws.

school-fights-photo-by-public-school-review-courtesy-of-google

The letter, which may also be found on the school district’s website, explained that if a student commits the offense of an assault in the third degree, that student will be charged with a Class E felony rather than a misdemeanor.  The letter further clarified that if two students are fighting one or both may be charged with a Class E felony no matter the age or grade level.

Parents like Erica Ussery, a graduate of Hazelwood Central High School and a current parent of a child within the Hazelwood School District, learned about the new changes to the assault law through social media and felt concerned because “these laws are going into place and we have no idea because we’re not involved to help put them into place or to not put them into place in this case.”

…if their child is involved in a fight with another student in school, on school grounds, on the bus, or at the bus stop, that child may face a felony assault charge…

Dr. Joseph Davis, Ferguson-Florissant school district superintendent, and the Ferguson-Florissant school district released a video explaining how the new changes to Missouri’s assault laws may affect children who are involved in fights where school resource or local law enforcement officers become involved.  Dr. Davis informed parents that if their child is involved in a fight with another student in school, on school grounds, on the bus, or at the bus stop, that child may face a felony assault charge depending on the circumstances.

The law concerning school districts is Chapter 565 Section 565.054.1 under the “offenses against the person” chapter.  This particular school district change will go into effect beginning on January 1, 2017.  The old version of the law outlined the various ways a person can commit assault in the third degree including recklessly causing physical injury, placing another person in apprehension of immediate physical injury, knowingly causing physical contact that the other person would regard as offensive, and a host of other scenarios.  Under the old codification, a person convicted of assault in the third degree would receive either a class C misdemeanor or a more enhanced class A misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.  The penalties for these misdemeanors ranged from up to fifteen days in jail or a fine up to $300 to up to one year in jail or a fine up to $1,000 respectively.

The new codification removes the majority of ways a person can commit assault in the third degree and simplifies the offense to “knowingly causing physical injury to another person.”  A conviction under the new codification results in a class E felony which carries a potential prison sentence of up to four years and a term of supervised release if the sentencing judge deems it appropriate.

“‘Well this is something new,’ the truth is that’s always existed.”

Missouri State Representative Elijah Haahr believes that school districts are misinterpreting the new changes to the assault law because before the new codification takes effect, children can already be charged with felonies for fighting on school grounds.  Section 565.075.2 of the offenses against the person chapter criminalizes causing physical injury to another person while at school or on school district property, or in a vehicle that at the time of the act was in the service of a school or school district, or arose as a result of a school or school district-sponsored activity.  The punishment for violating this law is a class D felony, which carries a more stringent penalty than the class E felony that will go into effect with the new codification of 565.054.1.  Section 565.075.2 will be repealed on December 31, 2016; however, the new codification of the third degree assault law effectively swallows the language of the assault on school property statute.  Thus, it seems State Rep. Haahr may be on to something with his words that “people read the initial draft of the new criminal code and perceived there was a potential felony charge for students who get into a fight at school ―when they read it that way, they said, ‘Well this is something new,’ the truth is that’s always existed.”

“Our District already has very thorough measures in place regarding all types of behaviors…”

School districts around the state are reviewing the new changes to the assault laws and are determining whether or not they need to make any changes to their current policies.  For instance, in the Hazelwood School District online policy handbook, immediate reporting of third-degree assault may not be required if a written agreement between the school superintendent and local law enforcement exists.  However, Hazelwood has yet to come to an agreement with law enforcement agencies.  In the Ferguson-Florissant district, superintendent officials have met with local law enforcement, but “there’s not a complete agreement yet on what everyone understands the consequences or results of these new laws to be.”  The St. Louis Public School district has also failed to  put any new policies in place in regards to reporting third degree assaults on school grounds; however, spokesman Patrick Wallace praised the district’s current policies by stating that “our District already has very thorough measures in place regarding all types of behaviors, including fighting, so there may not need to be any changes made based on the new law.”

Notably, within the St. Louis Public School district policy handbook, fighting has three different levels of interventions that school officials use to help combat serious issues and prevent having to involve local law enforcement.  Some of the intervention techniques include conferences between the parent, student, and school staff, a behavioral improvement plan, and if that student becomes too much of a danger to other students, suspension.

In Missouri, a principal may suspend a student for up to 10 school days, while the superintendent may suspend a student for up to 180 school days.  The concern here is that in Missouri in particular, suspensions tend to fall more heavily upon black students rather than white students.  A 2015 study from the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies discovered that in 2011-12, Missouri had the highest percentage point gap between between black and white students at the elementary school level, while at the middle and high school the state landed within the top five.  Research has shown that suspending students from school puts them at greater risk for dropping out of school permanently and further perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

“…we can presume that this law will be unfairly, improperly and disproportionately used…”

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the national trend of criminalizing rather than educating children and encompasses the growing use of zero-tolerance discipline, school-based arrests, disciplinary alternative schools, and detention to marginalize at-risk youth and deny them access to education.  Given the information on the disparities of suspension rates in Missouri, individuals such as Jeffery Mittman, the director of the Missouri branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, believe the letter from the Hazelwood School District shows why Missouri potentially has a serious problem on its hands going forward.  “If the past is any indicator, I think it’s fair to say that based on documented research we can presume that this law will be unfairly, improperly and disproportionately used against students of color, most often black males, and that we are damaging their education, which in turns damages their employability and everything from there on forward.”

With the New Year upon us, it will be interesting to see how each school district reacts to the new changes in the Missouri assault laws and what impact the enhanced potential to be punished with a felony will have our school children, particularly, minority school children, who already find themselves on the disproportionate side of school punishment.

Tommy Harvey III
About Tommy Harvey III (12 Articles)
Tommy Harvey III is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Atlanta, GA and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Miami. Tommy has worked for the United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of North Carolina and the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, NC. His legal interests include Civil Rights Law, Constitutional Law, and International Law. Tommy is a member of the Campbell Law Trial Team, and serves as a peer mentor as well as the current Vice President and past Treasurer for the Campbell Law Black Law Students Association.