Students in Missouri who bully others at school could face criminal charges under a new state law that considers the infliction of “emotional distress” a felony.
Educators worry that the new definition of harassment as a crime — part of a broader overhaul of Missouri’s criminal code — could draw police and the courts into situations that are commonly considered school disciplinary matters. That, in turn, could lead to more students facing serious legal repercussions, and even jail time, for school misconduct.
“This crime was not written with children in mind,” said Susan Goldammer, a lawyer with the Missouri School Boards Association. “The mandatory reporting laws have forced school districts to apply this to children, which is going to be really hard.”
The nation’s public schools have worked for years to reduce police involvement in student misbehavior because many educators believe that children who face legal jeopardy for classroom incidents are less likely to learn from their mistakes and are far more likely to be incarcerated later on in life — what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The Obama administration has focused on reducing the criminalization of school-based incidents and has urged schools to cut back on suspensions and expulsions in an effort to keep students on a path toward graduation.
In Missouri, schools are required to report certain crimes to police. That doesn’t mean all children who violate the law will be charged as adults, but it can trigger a response from the juvenile justice system.
A change in state law, which went into effect this week, elevates harassment from a misdemeanor offense to a felony. Harassment previously was defined in six specific ways, including making threats or repeated unwanted communication. Under the new law, harassment is broadly defined as any act that “causes emotional distress.”
While schools take bullying and other misbehavior seriously, Goldammer said it is worrisome that educators now must call police when a child is in emotional distress.
“That’s part of school,” Goldammer said. “Part of growing up is knowing how to deal with stressful situations.”
Under the new law, if a student inflicts an injury on another student, that now can be considered felony assault. That change has received the most attention in Missouri because two school districts sent out warning messages to parents about it.
Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the new laws actually make it less likely that school altercations will be considered felonies because the changes eliminated a provision that made any assault on school property a felony.
The prosecutors’ association pushed for the criminal code revisions, and the changes to the harassment language were not aimed at addressing school bullying, Fite said. While prosecutors could use the law against school bullies, she said it would be rare.
“We are most likely to see this in settings of domestic violence,” Fite said.
Tina Meier’s 13-year-old daughter Megan committed suicide in 2006 after she endured cyberbullying from adults, and Meier has since become a staunch anti-bullying advocate in Missouri. Meier said it is appropriate to characterize harassment as repeatedly trying to cause someone emotional harm, but she believes schools should be trying to address why students bully others through social and emotional supports, not through the legal system.
“If that’s the case, then yes we want to make sure there are consequences,” Meier said. “But a felony? I don’t think a felony is the answer. ”
The state revisions also changed the definition of assault, which led to at least two school districts warning parents that school fights can also lead to felony charges.
Missouri’s Hazelwood School District — which serves north St. Louis County, including portions of Ferguson, Mo. — sent a notice to parents warning that the new law could have a dramatic impact. School officials gave an example of a school fight that leads to an injury: “The student who caused the injury may be charged with a felony,” the letter read, noting that it can apply “no matter the age or grade level.”
In a YouTube video, Ferguson-Florissant Schools Superintendent Joseph Davis warned students that fighting in schools can now cause students to have criminal records. “Let me be clear, the consequences of poor choices and bad decisions, a simple fight, may follow you for the rest of your life,” Davis said.
The school system later published a clarification on its website saying the “intent of our video message was to keep students and parents informed. We are working with law enforcement and attorneys to be certain that we all understand the changes to the law.”
Neither district mentioned harassment or bullying in their warnings. Hazelwood officials did not return requests for comment.
In a written statement to The Washington Post, Ferguson-Florissant School District officials said there is “still a lack of consensus and clarity regarding the new laws and the implications for students and schools.”
In a statement, the ACLU of Missouri said school fights were already considered felony offenses, but it was rare for juveniles to be charged as adults. But the ACLU criticized the state lawmakers for attempting “to address student behavior problems by outsourcing discipline management strategies to law enforcement.”