Samantha Jade Royds

A Missouri law set to go into effect on January 1 has some teachers and student advocates worried that punishing everyday school bullying could become yet another means of black and brown children being pushed directly into the penal system.

Under the new law, third-degree assault and some forms of harassment that inflict "emotional distress" on the victim will be considered a felony. As the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch points out, this means that anyone found to have intentionally caused physical harm to another person could be charged for having committed a felony.

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While these changes are part of a broader Missouri law to get tougher on assault, misdemeanors, and felonies, schools are required to report harassment to local police, which means that children could end up getting charged with a felony for fighting. The law doesn't mention how it applies to cases that happen on school grounds.

In theory, a law like this could lead to a drastic decrease in instances of fighting and bullying in school as students consider the drastic impacts a felony conviction could have on their lives. On the other hand, though, many see it as yet another way of the state strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline problem in which mostly students of color end up in adult prisons after multiple interactions with the juvenile criminal system.

Speaking to the Dispatch, Missouri School Board legal counsel Kelli Hopkins said that while she was certain that the law wasn't necessarily meant to lead to the increased criminalization of young people caught up in petty violence, it was a definite concern of hers.

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“I think that we are working very hard to stop the school-to-prison pipeline," Hopkins said. "[But] I think this might inadvertently increase the number of children who are referred to law enforcement."

Hopkins went on to explain that by including the word "knowingly" in its definition of what constitutes an assault, the law makes sure that very young children and others incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions are protected from unfair punishment. Rather, Hopkins said, the issue at hand is the law's handling of "harassment," which, up until this point, was often handled on a case-by-case basis by schools themselves. But because harassment is such a widely defined idea that can range from anything between name-calling and online cyber stalking, there's no way to predict how this law will be applied.

“This is a serious, serious thing for school districts,” Hopkins said.