For purposes of clarity, I differentiate between a mutual student fight and those where students are viciously attacked with no provocation or those where weapons are used to cause serious bodily injury. Also, it is necessary to mention that both causing physical injury and/or emotional distress is serious.This post should be interpreted to make light of violence of any form or bullying, and the effects of them.
Under Missouri's new statute, students caught fighting could face third-degree assault charges and up to four years in prison. For the state, "third-degree assault" means causing injury to another person. It is also reported that if a student experiences "emotional distress" as a result of harassment caused by bullying, the student accused of the harassment may also be charged with a felony.
The determining factor of "caused injury" is often a subjective conclusion which is influenced by the personal beliefs, biases, and life experiences of the person making the determination. The arbitrary interpretation of "caused injury" is not the basis of my objection to this law. My objection is more based on philosophy and pedagogy. Student fights are often a result of students lacking the capacity to identify and regulate one's emotions, resolve conflict, or seek help. In addition to academic content, the role of education is also to develop in students the values, attitudes and behaviors that align with those expected in society. With all we know about brain development, to criminalize, with a felony, this natural deficit in adolescent development is unethical.
As we intentionally work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, new laws such as this cause alarm; especially, given the indisputable data that show students of color are disproportionately penalized by laws such as this. The disproportionate enforcement of similar laws and practices has lead to the disproportionate representation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. The thought has crossed my mind that the spirit of the law is to be a deterrent. Unfortunately, as a K-12 Administrator tasked with enforcing state law as it pertains to discipline, I am a witness that the spirit of law does not often manifest in the implementation. In addition, the spirit of the law also does not often calculate the unintended consequences.
As educators, we must advocate against laws, policies, and practices that criminalize normal adolescent behavior. As an educator, a proponent of social-emotional learning, and a student of the neuroscience of adolescent brain development, I cannot support or enforce any law as this. In California, there are Education Codes (schools) and Penal Codes (criminal). The statutes in the Education Codes give school administrators authority over student discipline violations. The Penal Codes are enforced by law enforcement. The Education Codes are intentional to promote positive and inclusive alternatives and restorative practices, before exclusionary discipline. The challenge is the behavior violations in the Education Codes are also duplicated in the Penal Codes. This raises a question of jurisdiction. Behavior violations that occur on school campuses should be governed by Education Codes. This is the first step to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. The Education Codes even give guidance on when law enforcement should be notified. This mandated notification only involves a handful of serious violations, which does not include fights.
As I continue to conduct the "Let's Talk School Discipline!" series, in an effort to reform school discipline practices, I will use the Missouri statute as an example of a step in the wrong direction. Criminalizing normal adolescent behavior has two negative consequences: students are referred to the juvenile justice system at higher rates and students have lack of access to quality education. Both of these consequences have long-lasting negative impacts on student outcomes, family socioeconomic upward mobility, and community. Education has the potential to change the life trajectory of students. Any limit to the access of education is detrimental. Educators must evaluate laws, policies, and practices through the lens of limiting access and potential life outcomes.