Missouri Plans to Punish Students Involved in School Fights in a Very Harsh Way

December 22nd 2016

When Missouri school students return from their winter break, they'll have to contend with a harsh new law that could send them to prison for getting into a fight - or even engaging in a harmless playground scuffle.

Under revised statutes that go into effect on Jan. 1, Missouri will now classify a fight between two students that has to be broken up by School Resource Officers as a felony.

Both students involved are eligible for the charges of either a Class E, which is assault in the third degree, or Class D felony no matter who started the fight, their grade level or age. Class E felonies carry a maximum prison sentence of four years. Beyond that, any student who injures another or is involved in a fight with a student in a "special class" will be subject to an even harsher felony - Class D, which can result in up to seven years in prison.

It appears the new law is intended to deter fights through the possibility of harsh punishment. Indeed, a Missouri police officer told local station KFVS that he hoped it would make students "think twice" about fighting because “a felony down the road is something that will definitely hamper you down the road for sure."

However, what the law will likely do instead is only put more students on the path toward involvement with the legal system, at an age long before their ability to "think twice" about the consequences of a minor scuffle is fully formed.

As ThinkProgress puts it: This is just another example of the "school-to-prison pipeline," which is the term for "the process by which young people are criminalized for their behavior in schools, exposed to law enforcement and the rest of the criminal justice system at an early age, and become more likely to interact with that system down the line."

A number of studies have shown that the consequences of this pipeline are numerous and devastating.

"The new law exemplifies the crisis in Missouri with the school-to-prison pipeline," ACLU of Missouri executive director Jeffrey Mittman told ATTN:. "Schools should not be places where police criminalize young people." Police don't belong in schools and are counterproductive to the mission of a school which should be to educate students, according to Mittman.

Students who are suspended, expelled, or have even one arrest are much more likely to drop out. It also results in deputized school officials doling out harsh punishments for the most minor of infractions.

And it disproportionately hits minority students harder, with Missouri schools in particular being notorious for the rate with which they suspend black students.

"A 2005 UCLA study showed that Missouri is the worst in the nation in the difference between how it treats white students and black students," Mittman said. "The Missouri school system and legislature need to treat fighting as an education issue, and focus on reforming the systemic over-targeting of minority students."

Unfortunately, this new law is likely to do just the opposite.

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