New criminal codes may affect area students
Third-degree assault, harassment now considered felonies if new definitions met
Effective Jan. 1, changes in the state criminal code, including changes in the definitions of third-degree assault and harassment and new reporting requirements, could mean that a student, regardless of age, could potentially be charged with a felony for circumstances resulting from fighting in school.
Although districts have had to report specific crimes that occur on school property, a school function or on a school bus, such as drug or weapon possession, harassment and all degrees of assault in years past fell under the Safe Schools Act. Under the new statute, the definition of third-degree assault is now, "knowingly causing physical injury to another person," constituting a class E felony, verses a misdemeanor.
Harassment is also now considered a felony if the victim suffers emotional distress from the act, defined as "something markedly greater than the level of uneasiness, nervousness, unhappiness or the like which are commonly experienced in day-to-day living."
The problem with these definitions, the Missouri School Board's Association said in an information release to school districts, is they could be applied to an endless number of minor offenses that occur in school and are part of normal childhood behavior. Also, school employees will be put in the position of distinguishing whether an act was intentional, or self-defense, and discerning the difference between typical unhappiness or markedly greater unhappiness, which could be difficult.
The MSBA expressed a concern that the new reporting requirements do not allow districts to consider the specific facts of each situation or the age and maturity level of the students involved, for instance, two 7-year-olds fighting verses two 17-year-olds. There is also a concern of normal childhood behavior becoming criminalized, potentially leading to juvenile and criminal records and an increase in the school-to-prison pipeline.
"We've had some discussion about it, and I'm sure we'll have a lot more," said Eric White, Cassville Intermediate School principal. "Most of it is fairly difficult to define in my opinion. I think it leaves a lot of doors open to interpretation. We have a lot of categories within our disciplinary system. If Johnny calls Jill a name, they may be upset, but I don't know that falls into the definition of harassment, and a lot of it will depend on the interpretation of whoever's handling that incident, or even the child's perception.
"What is the definition of harassment? You can ask 10 people and not get the same answer. A lot of it has to do with intent, and I think intent is definitely different when you get to older age groups."
Most school districts have specific policies and programs in place for handling incidents, and agreements with local police such as consideration of the age and maturity of the students involved and whether the incident was self defense, before reporting something as serious as third-degree assault, which can have life-long implications in a young person's life.
White said educators are here to help students succeed and prevent behavior problems to begin with, which is why the school has a program called Positive Behavior Support (PBS), that has been so successful in the primary and intermediate schools, it has been considered in upper grade levels, too.
"We're not just here to teach English and math," he said. "Another part of our job is to teach social skills and the ability to get along and foster relationships. Our PBS program does have some positive influence on our kids. We do it every day. We have incidents from time to time, but I think they are less severe and less frequent due to the program and age group."
The Exeter school district has a policy and program for handling incidents that also appears to be beneficial in teaching social skills and preventing conflicts.
"We report all Safe School Violations to local law enforcement as this is required by law," said Ernest Raney, Exeter superintendent. "We have a strong working relationship and understanding with our local police department about proper steps to take in these instances. This helps to prevent against unnecessary charges on a student's record, as a result of normal mistakes children tend to make as they grow and mature socially.
"Guiding students to make responsible decisions when faced with adversity is everyone's responsibility. We also support our students through weekly guidance and counseling services that include programs such as 'Bully-Proofing Your School,' which are used within our Caring Kids Curriculum."
Richard Asbill, Cassville superintendent, said counselors are always on hand to deal with confrontations.
"When further support is needed through counseling services to intervene and assist students dealing with social challenges, our school counselors work with students to equip them with strategies for dealing with difficult situations," he said.
Asbill said the district will comply with the law changes, but issued a reminder that application and ability of the school district and administrators to evaluate these matters are central to the outcomes of any incidents.
"We have to realize that there can be a difference between a push in first grade, and a push in 10th grade," Asbill said. "There is also the intent, as in, why did this happen? Cassville administrators will need to continue the work, training and efforts to make informed decisions about the circumstances involved in each incident.
"We are fortunate to have a resource officer partnership with the city of Cassville, and a long-standing relationship with the Barry County Sheriff's Office, too. We will need to continue evaluating these issues, follow the guidance we receive from MSBA and other updates on how our policy and procedures need to be adjusted. For now, we remain committed to handling things as we have and when an incident meets the level of concern, we will follow the law and report accordingly."