Lawmakers make school fights a felony

The one aspect that I hated about teaching was when students fought. I believe many people would agree that fighting can be considered a part of childhood even though many children don’t fight. While school districts implement measures to prevent school fights, they still occur, but charging those who end up in a fight at school with a felony is not the solution to this age-old problem.

Missouri lawmakers seem to think so. As of the start of this year, students who fight at school will no longer be charged with a misdemeanor and released to their parents. They will be taken to a juvenile detention center, could be charged with a Class E felony and could receive a 4-year stint in juvenile detention. Fighting on school buses and at bus stops could also result in students being charged with a felony. You might be thinking, “Not little Jamie in kindergarten? The law applies to students of ALL ages – little Jamie, too.

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Although I’m staunchly against school fights, shouldn’t those who work with students also work to determine why students fight instead of “throwing the book” at them? Many all over the country do, but let’s examine a few of the reasons some students fight:

  1. Overcrowded schools – As one student put it, where she lives, there is 1 school for 4,000 students while nearby, there are 11 schools for 2,000 students. I wouldn’t be shocked if the 1 school with 4,000 students has more fights than the other 11 schools combined. Overcrowding tends to be taxing to resources, teachers and students.
  2. Home life – Maybe a student woke up to their electricity, gas or water being turned off. I’m sure it’s difficult to focus on learning when a student couldn’t even take a shower before heading to school. What about food insecurity? If students are hungry, they’re likely to be focused on their growling stomachs rather than on camaraderie. Maybe a student’s parents recently divorced, or maybe a parent died, etc. I could go on for some time about the impact home life has on student behavior and achievement. It’s difficult to believe that Missouri lawmakers considered the impact home life can have on students when determining that fighting at school should result in a felony charge.
  3. Undiagnosed learning and behavioral disabilities – Some students attend school for years before being diagnosed with learning or behavioral disabilities. Some are NEVER diagnosed. In Missouri, if such students fight, will anyone work to determine if the students have an undiagnosed disability or will the students simply be charged with a felony?
  4. Bullying – Some students might feel they must fight as a result of being bullied. What about students who fight because they were hit first? Do they get charged with a felony, too?
  5. The abnormal normal – I’m sure there are those who will balk at this statement, but there are others who believe that the public school system itself is abnormal – that placing people of the same age together for 180 days a year for 12-plus years is abnormal. There is no other environment where people are thrust into such a phenomenon.

Missouri could have followed the lead of schools that have found alternatives to punitive consequences. Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore opened its “Mindful Moment Room,” last year instead of sending students who misbehaved to detention. Once there, students were guided into reflecting on what they did wrong. As a result, the school garnered a zero suspension rate last year. I know that there’s no one-size-fits all solution here, but at least Coleman Elementary has implemented a different approach to discipline problems.

Missouri officials, such as Sikeston DPS Sergeant Jon Broom hopes this new law will curtail student fights. “A felony down the road is something that will definitely hamper you down the road for sure,” Broom said.

It won’t just hamper those convicted of a felony down the road – it will negatively impact their lives for life. According to Legal Beagle, in many states, those convicted of a felony can’t do the following:

  1. Vote
  2. Run for public office
  3. Bear arms
  4. Travel abroad

Being convicted of a felony can also prevent them from finding gainful employment, because many employers refuse to hire felons.

Of course, when someone commits a crime, consequences should be issued, but sentencing students to a lifetime of hardship for something they did in their youth that didn’t result in the death of another student is quite severe. I also understand that when students are severely injured as a result of being the target of a fight, tough consequences should be issued.

My point here isn’t to over simplify the remedy to student fights, but I don’t believe that branding students felons for life is one of them.

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