A new Missouri law could punish children who get into fights on the elementary school playground with up to four years in prison, regardless of how old they are or what grade they’re in, KFVS (Cape Girardeau) is reporting.
Beginning January 1, 2017, all schoolyard fights at Missouri schools will be treated as felonies if a school resource officer (SRO) has to break them up. The students involved in the fight will both be charged with class E felonies, regardless of who started the fight. A class E felony in Missouri carries a possible sentence of up to four years in jail.
Further, according to Attn, if one or both of the children are injured in the fight, the child(ren) causing injury could face a class D felony, which carries a penalty of up to seven years in prison. The class D felony also looms over any child who fights in a “special class.”
According to a note to parents issued by the Hazelwood School District, Missouri previously treated schoolyard fights as misdemeanors.
It bears noting that the language of the statute seems to indicate that felony charges only come into play if the school fight is “witnessed by” or broken up by a school resource officer or other law enforcement official. It is not clear, then, if fighting kids can escape felony charges if they’re fortunate enough to fight out of sight of SROs and have it broken up by a school official before an SRO becomes involved.
Ostensibly, the law is designed to address the problem of violence in Missouri schools. Speaking to KFVS, Sikeston Department of Public Safety Sergeant Jon Broom says that he hopes the law will make kids think twice before swinging their fists.
“I would definitely speak with them and talk with them and let them know just a fist fight anymore could definitely mean a felony. Something that could follow you on down the road and could make life difficult for you.”
However, Think Progress writer Carimah Townes says that Missouri’s new law will just put more kids in the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the trend of criminalizing juvenile school behavior that, a generation ago, would have resulted in in-school punishment such as a detention or a suspension. Instead, minor disciplinary infractions, such as disrupting class, fighting, or even wearing the wrong uniform, can result in harsh punishments handed down by the legal system, as well as put children and teenagers in contact with police for minor shenanigans.
Once kids are in the legal system, opponents of the school-to-prison pipeline say, the chances greatly increase that they’ll eventually drop out of school. Further, kids are left with a criminal record that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Further, the trend disproportionately affects minority students. And the problem is particularly pronounced in Missouri, says ACLU of Missouri executive director Jeffrey Mittman.
“A 2005 UCLA study showed that Missouri is the worst in the nation in the difference between how it treats white students and black students. The Missouri school system and legislature need to treat fighting as an education issue, and focus on reforming the systemic over-targeting of minority students.”
Mittman says that schools should be places where children learn and grow; criminalizing bad behavior of young people is counter to that mission, he says.
Do you believe Missouri’s plan to charge schoolchildren with felonies for fighting is the right move?
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