The Washington Post reported that effective January 1, 2017 the Missouri law, which previously defined harassment in six different ways, will now broadly define harassment as any act that “causes emotional distress.” The law also elevates harassment from a misdemeanor to a felony offense.
“Let me be clear, the consequences of poor choices and bad decisions, a simple fight, may follow you for the rest of your life,” said Joseph Davis, the superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, in a video message to students and their families regarding the new legislation. Davis further suggests students consult trusted teachers, counselors, and principals before “taking matters into your own hands” because they can provide materials about resolving conflict and support students in doing so.
Two experts have taken two very different stances on the changed verbiage.
Susan Goldammer, a lawyer with the Missouri School Boards Association, argues this law “was not written with children in mind.” The state’s mandatory reporting laws require schools to report certain crimes – now including harassment – to police. Goldammer says calling the police any time a child is in emotional distress is worrisome because it will inevitably increase the justice system’s involvement in school affairs.
While harassment, bullying and fighting are serious behavior and safety concerns that should not be taken lightly, according to the article increasing the involvement of police in these situations only further solidifies the school-to-prison pipeline.
Amy Fite, the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, argues the change to the law’s language was to address domestic violence, not school bullying and that the law actually eliminated a “provision that made any assault on school property a felony.” While the law could be used against school bullies, she said it would be rare.