St. Louisans working to reform school discipline and the juvenile justice system say they are pushing for clear district policies in response to Missouri’s revised criminal code.
That’s after Ferguson-Florissant and Hazelwood issued warnings in December that Missouri’s newly revised criminal code could mean students would be charged with felonies for fighting.
The Rev. Dietra Wise-Baker said worried parents packed the Metropolitan Congregation United office at an initial meeting last Thursday.
“This generation of adults was a little bit older than those you would see out in the Ferguson protests,” Wise-Baker said. “This kind of hit a different sector of the community.”
The parents were upset and scared that young children could be charged with felonies after the warnings issued by the two north St. Louis County school districts.
The laws around school fights aren’t actually changing much. But Wise-Baker said older students especially are still at risk.
“The statute applies to kids in the sense that in a high school you have juniors and seniors who are 17 and 18 years old, and in the state of Missouri a 17-year-old is an adult in the criminal system,” Wise-Baker said. “Kids could always be charged with felonies. It’s not new, but it’s kind of new to the community. The community’s kind of waking up to, ‘Wait a minute this is in the law?!’ ”
“In my 12 years (as a chaplain in the juvenile justice system) I’ve never seen a young child be charged with a felony for fighting,” she added. “But the older kids very regularly are charged with felonies for fights and stuff in schools or in the community.”
Wise-Baker said the next step for MCU is to organize parents to be leaders within their school districts who can advocate for clear codes of conduct and push for districts to use their discretion when reporting incidents to police
“The parents are very accurate in their concern that, OK, we got (the part about young children being charged with felons) wrong, but the way that this has been put out and sensationalized, it can be interpreted in a way that is going to definitely hurt particularly poor, black children,” Wise-Baker said. Part of the worry, she said, is that school districts might report more fights and other incidents to law enforcement beginning in 2017.
“Some of them are backing away from it, saying they were just sharing information,” Wise-Baker said. “It felt like they were posturing to use this to change their discipline policy. So I think one of the next steps is that parents in different school districts need to get really clear about codes of conduct and how they plan on interpreting the law.”
School reporting requirements
Luz Maria Henriquez is an education attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. She said school reporting requirements haven’t changed, but some definitions of the crimes they’re required to report have changed.
“The Missouri Safe Schools Act has been in existence since before the changes to the criminal code, and it already referenced those criminal offenses that had to be referred on over” to police, Henriquez said. School districts have discretion on how they interpret the law — and even if the district reports an incident it doesn’t mean the student will be charged with anything, she said.
“They are not attorneys, so they are not the ones who are ultimately charging students with that criminal offense,” Henriquez said.
Assault and harassment are among about 20 crimes schools are required to report, leading some to worry that name-calling could be referred to police. But Henriquez said districts also have discretion when it comes to harassment.
According to Elad Gross, a former Missouri assistant attorney general, 2017’s revised criminal code means school districts no longer have to report lower level injuries.
“Starting in 2017, the lower level assaults, which are now called assault 4ths, they’re not in the law, so under the law, a school district or folks within, teachers and all that, don’t have to report these lower level assaults to law enforcement in any kind of way,” Gross said.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.