Editorial: Students should not be criminalized for misbehavior

Fighting and bullying in school have recently become less acceptable, and students are being punished more frequently and severely than ever. Now, however, there is concern about more severe consequences to fighting than suspension/expulsion.

A revision made to the Missouri criminal code took effect Jan. 1, redefining assault in the third degree and creating a fourth degree. Parents and school administrators, unsure of the implications of the revision’s language, worry that children could now potentially be charged with assault–a felony– for any sort of scrap or incident of bullying at school, at bus stops or on school property.

The language of the revised statutes defines third degree assault as “knowingly causing physical injury to another person.”  This language raises concerns that students who pull another student’s hair or commit some sort of other minor offence could be charged with third degree assault–a class E felony charge which could follow them for the rest of their life.

The new definition of fourth degree assault includes attempts to cause physical harm or illness to another person, initiate physical contact with another person which the person will find provocative or offensive. Furthermore, if a victim suffers “emotional distress” from an incident of harassment–a form of bullying, the perpetrator of the harassment could be charged with a felony.

As a stark contrast to these offences, injuring someone with a firearm with criminal negligence is also categorized as fourth degree assault. Harassment by students, which can be so loosely construed and arbitrarily labeled, should not be treated the same as shooting someone.

Students, especially adolescents, need guidance. Keep in mind the fact that students in many schools are not allowed to use the restroom without permission–even if they are 18 years old. To treat students who aren’t even trusted to use the restroom as adults, and to give them a permanent record as a felon for something they do during one of the most confusing and chaotic periods of their lives will only serve to damage students.

Turning cases of harassment or physical altercations into felony charges, while hurting the offenders in such cases, also would serve to make students less capable of dealing with incidents of bullying. The ability to have thick skin and forgive someone who acts in a way that hurts us, physically or emotionally (within reason), is a life lesson that is more and more frequently not being taught, whether at school or away from school.

The severity of a punishment should be strictly based on the severity of the offence and the student’s past. More serious offences, especially those committed by older students, should be punished more severely, but felony charges should be a last resort.

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