A new Missouri statute is drawing the ire of civil rights advocates over concerns that it unnecessarily criminalizes children. However, a state lawmaker says that the statute is being mischaracterized and does not spur significant change.
A letter to parents and guardians that Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County sent recently said that a law taking effect Jan. 1 could result in school fights being treated as class E felonies. Class E felonies could result in up to four years in prison. The letter said these types of acts were previously treated as misdemeanors.
As the school district explains, under the statute, “if two students are fighting and one child is injured, the student who caused the injury may be charged with a felony. Student(s) who are caught fighting in school, bus or on school grounds may now be charged with a felony (no matter the age or grade level), if this assault is witnessed by one of the School Resource Officers/police officers (SRO) or if the SRO/local law enforcement officials have to intervene.”
The law’s language does not specifically address school fights, but rather changes in how the state views instances of assault. This could impact students arrested by school-based police officers, the district implies.
Additionally, another school district in the area, Ferguson-Florissant, released a video giving a similar explanation of the law change.
However, state Rep. Elijah Haahr says the changes have been misinterpreted, and that kids can currently be charged with felonies for schoolyard fights. Under the new law, it’s a different classification of felony that comes with larger fines.
“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,’” said Haahr. “The truth is that’s always existed.”
Additionally, students under the age of 17 get funneled into the juvenile system except in extreme circumstances, noted Elad Gross, a former assistant attorney general for Missouri.
Ferguson-Florissant spokesman Kevin Hampton said the district has no intention of scaring children or pushing them into the criminal justice system. It published the video after getting many questions from community members about the new law.
“We met with law enforcement official earlier this week and talked with them and there’s not a complete agreement yet on what everyone understands the consequences or results of these new laws to be,” Hampton said. “While it’s unclear what those changes might be, we felt it was really important to send a strong message to students: you need to avoid any behavior to result in something that could be worse than what we’ve had before.”
Representatives from the Hazelwood School District did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for the nearby St. Louis Public School district said it is still reviewing the legislation to determine how it would impact students.
“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,” said Patrick Wallace via email.
Civil rights advocates say that when kids get arrested in response to school fights, it can help perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline. This is the idea that overly harsh school discipline practices help push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts students of color. Indeed, it is already documented that Missouri treats its students of color with abnormal brutality.
A 2015 study from the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies found that at the elementary school level, Missouri had the largest gap in the country between the percentage of white and black students who get suspended. The state similarly fell in the top rung of states for its racial gap in suspension rates at the junior high and high school level, as shown in the map below.
Additionally, a Missouri mom filed a lawsuit in September after her 7-year-old child was handcuffed in school.
The director of the Missouri branch of the American Civil Liberties Union told The Huffington Post that the letter from Hazelwood School District exhibits why the state has a problem when it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
“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 student of color, most often black males,” Jeffrey Mittman said. “And that we are damaging their education, which in turns damages their employability and everything from there on forward.”
In response to the Hazelwood letter, the founding director of the Missouri Gay Straight Alliance Network said he fears incidents that may have previously been dealt with on school grounds by school officials might now be hashed out in court.
“Now SROs jut have that much more ability to charge students and haul them off in handcuffs,” said Morgan Keenan.
For the LGBTQ students with whom Keenan works, the consequences could be devastating. Keenan says his students are often bullied and sometimes physically harassed. Now, if his students start to fight back, they will face stark repercussions.
“It’s going to make it worse. Right now the students are just getting pushed out of school for lots of reason, but having felony charges on their record is going to be that much more problematic when they want to live a life outside of high school,” said Keenan.
UPDATE: Jan. 10 ― At the beginning of January, the superintendent of the Hazelwood School District sent a letter clarifying the law change to parents. The letter said Hazelwood School District is not planning to “do anything differently about how we handle matters of student discipline, such as school fights, as a result of the change in the law. We will look at each situation on a case-by-case basis, as we have always done.”
Kimberly McKenzie, director of communications for the district, told The Huffington Post that the district decided to send the original letter after meeting with the local police department. The police department told district leaders that changes to the law could impact how kids are prosecuted.
“Our intention was not to scare parents or students, it was literally just to share the information about this new law,” McKenzie said.
This story has been updated to include comment from Haahr, Gross and Hampton.
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.