A change in state statute is unlikely to make more schoolyard fights felonies.
When Missouri lawmakers made third degree assault a Class E felony, up from a misdemeanor, two school districts in the St. Louis area issued dire warnings that the criminal code revisions could have a dramatic impact on school discipline.
But Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says that isn’t the case.
“I think people are a little panicked right now that the law will now make kids in a fistfight at school felons,” Baker told KCUR. “I take my discretion as a prosecutor very seriously and know even though the law may change, I need to be very measured in my approach.”
The changes went into effect Jan. 1.
A statement posted to Kansas City Public Schools’ website advises students and parents that a felony charge could result in the loss of rights. It also notes that the changes in the law were not targeted at schools or students.
That doesn’t mean KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell isn’t concerned.
“At some point during our times growing up, many of us who are adults now that can rationalize a lot better, we’ve made some bad decisions too that potentially could have stripped away a lot of opportunities, so yeah, I am absolutely worried,” Bedell says.
But as St. Louis Public Radio reported, causing physical injury on school property was a felony under Missouri law even before the criminal code changed.
Bedell says KCPS has a good working relationship with the prosecutor’s office. He’s planning to meet with Baker next week.
In the meantime, he’s worried about the choices students make when they’re not at school.
“We have a responsibility around developing kids in that social and emotional arena and really helping them understand how to cope when things don’t go their way,” Bedell says.
Baker’s office only handles cases involving students 17 and older. A juvenile prosecutor, she says, could use the change in statute to offer more services to a child who knowingly caused physical injury to a classmate.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.