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Rumors aside, school fights could already result in felony charges in Missouri

Drawing of child and scales of justice
Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio

Warnings issued by two St. Louis County school districts Thursday sparked a flurry of concern that students who fight in school will be charged with a felony beginning in January.

In a video posted to YouTube, Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Joseph Davis told students and parents that “the consequences of poor choices and bad decisions, a simple fight, may follow you for the rest of your life” when changes to Missouri’s criminal code take effect in 2017.

A notice issued on the Hazelwood School District website said the statutes “may have a drastic impact on how incidents are handled in area school districts.”

But in reality the changes aren’t that different from existing law.

Technically a prosecutor could already charge a child with felony assault in Missouri if they choose to; an existing law makes it a felony to knowingly cause physical injury on school property.

According to Amy Fite, the president of the Missouri Prosecutors Association, the changes to the criminal code actually makes it less likely an altercation on school grounds will be considered a felony.

“Despite some news stories to the contrary, the revision actually narrows the instances in which routine assaults will be considered felonies,” Fite said. “It doesn’t expand it.

“Currently an assault on school property is an automatic felony, and so it’s not the conduct that makes it a felony, it’s the location where it occurs,” Fite added.

Because the revised criminal code adds another type of assault and removes the location-specific law, Fite said a fight on school grounds that now would be considered a felony could become a misdemeanor.

Fite also said the requirements for a child to be tried as an adult are not changing.

According to attorney Mae Quinn with the St. Louis McArthur Justice Center, children can be charged with the same crimes as adults in Missouri. The juvenile code just dictates the court process and consequences.

“I’m glad it’s now getting the attention it has long deserved, this problem, this issue of overcharging children for childhood behaviors,” Quinn said, adding that it’s up to a prosecutor to decide which charges to file.

“At the end of the day, before any charge gets filed in juvenile court or adult court it’s about a prosecutor deciding: should it be a charge, Quinn said.

“Every single one of these cases, any school fight, while it could start out as, 'Hmm, potentially that satisfies the elements.' A prosecutor could decide to send it to informal adjustment, every single case.”

Advocates react

For advocates fighting to increase equity in school discipline and make it less likely students receive suspensions, the attention is an opportunity to make a greater push for change.

“The energy and the outrage that people have is valid because we continue to be in a space where these are the types of concerns that people have all the time. And what this new statute has done is really bring it back to the forefront,” said Brittini Gray, a lead organizer in Metropolitan Congregation United’s Break the Pipeline campaign.

MCU is holding a strategy session Dec. 29 to plan how to respond to the revised criminal code.

“I think that whenever we’re talking about the criminal code and changes around policy we always have to be concerned with how it’s going to impact students of color because that’s who it impacts by and large,” Gray said. “There continues to be a great disparity between the impact of policies such as this on black and brown students, and particularly black students when we’re talking about the St. Louis region.”

Schools in Missouri are only required to report assaults that cause serious injury to police.

Gray said that means it’s largely up to school officials to decide how they want to handle changes to the code.

Schools with law enforcement assigned to their buildings, however, have less leeway.

In Hazelwood’s notice, it specifically warns that fights witnessed by school resource officers could result in felony charges.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille

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