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@NCCapitol

Bill making assaults on teachers a felony raises questions

Posted April 13, 2015

— Students 16 and older would be guilty of felonies if they assault a teacher under a bill the Senate Education Committee is due to review Wednesday.

As introduced, Senate Bill 343, authored by Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, would apply only to acts on school property.

"We need to get people's attention that this is a serious offense," Tillman said, adding that many student-on-teacher assaults go unreported.

The measure has drawn criticism from a number of advocacy groups that say that a felony charge can haunt young people throughout their lives, affecting everything from college admission to housing and job opportunities.

"You could have a situation where the teen doesn't touch the teacher and ends up with a felony charge," said Rob Thompson of the NC Child advocacy organization.

Some actions considered assault don't involve physical contact, although the charge more typically involves at least some glancing contact.

In North Carolina, 16-year-olds are prosecuted as adults for misdemeanors, and teens as young as 13 who commit a violent felony can be tried as adults.

The bill, Thompson said, would "exacerbate the criminalization of our schools."

The measure could have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, roughly half of the 1,333 assaults by students against school employees during the 2013-14 school year were committed by "exceptional students." The label is applied to students with a broad spectrum of disabilities from mild reading difficulties to severe autism.

In the 2012-13 school year, more than half of such assaults – 498 versus 418 – were committed by exceptional students.

A report issued last week by the Center for Public Integrity amplifies those numbers, showing that while students with disabilities make up less than 15 percent of the student population they account for a quarter of all cases referred to law enforcement. Black students, who make up 26 percent of the student population, make up 38 percent of cases referred to police.

"We're talking about putting a lot of kids with intellectual and development disabilities and emotional health needs in prison," said Corye Dunn, director of public policy for Disability Rights North Carolina.

Dunn said that a student assaulting a teacher is already a misdemeanor and can be upgraded to a felony if there is bodily harm. While both misdemeanors and felonies are crimes, employers, colleges and even rental agencies tend to screen for felonies during background checks of potential students and residents.

"That's a very serious consequence," Dunn said. "I don't know what problem we're trying to solve here. I don't think an angry 17-year-old with a disability is likely to reflect on the deterrent value of his actions possibly being a felony."

Leanne Winner, a lobbyist with the North Carolina School Boards Association, said her group is "uncomfortable" with the bill as well, due to its potential impact on students with disabilities.

Tim Crowley, a spokesman for the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers group, said his organization has not taken a position on the measure.

"NCAE always takes school safety and the safety of educators seriously," Crowley said. "We are currently reviewing Sen. Tillman's proposal and what impact it would have."

Tillman said he filed the bill in response to persistent reports of assaults in the schools. He said it didn't matter who was committing the actions.

"We’re punishing people who do the crime," he said. "I’m not sold on whether it would be somebody that has a high IQ or a low IQ. The law is the law on the street, and the law is the law in the schools. That's the way I look at it."

North Carolina's numbers of "assaults on school personnel," collected by the Department of Public Instruction, have increased from 834 in the 2003-04 school year to 1,333 in the past school year, the number of assaults that resulted in a serious injury dropped during that time, from 192 to 49.

Advocates say that they want to keep teachers and others in the schools safe but that this bill would do little toward that goal.

"We certainly want to make sure teachers are safe in the classroom," Thompson said. "That said, I think the wisest approach to working with children with disabilities is not to implement harsh punishment."

36 Comments

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  • Kim Harrison Apr 14, 2015
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    And your common sense in parenting is greatly appreciated by all! We need more like you.

  • Kim Harrison Apr 14, 2015
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    I am so over this school-to-prison pipeline tomfoolery. Schools are not sending people to prison - people's actions are sending them to prison. I wish people would stop jumping on the bandwagon or the latest "buzz words" and test the knowledge they are given. Special ed students have more protections than the POTUS - please. This has nothing to do with them so stop using them as the poster child against this proposed bill. They can actually hit you and get away with it - "it's called impulsivity"- and the team won't even find manifestation and the kid is back in school without even an apology. Parents need to raise their children, without the notion of hitting and fighting. Period. But when you have kids fighting/hitting their parents, what do you think they believe to others? That's where all of this begins - at home!

  • Kim Harrison Apr 14, 2015
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    Many don't press charges b/c they don't feel it is taken seriously - it's just a misdemeanor so it is no big deal. Kinda like smoke marijuana - it's recreational. Up the penalty and they will think twice before putting their hands on someone.

  • Kim Harrison Apr 14, 2015
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    Kids know right from wrong.....they don't just randomly hit a person in the supermarket or the streets, so why would it be believed that they don't understand the repercussions of their actions against a teacher - a government official? Perhaps we can save their lives if they nip it in the bud now. If you were a teacher hit by a student, what would you want done to them - detention?

  • Kim Harrison Apr 14, 2015
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    Zero tolerance policies were removed years ago, with the exception of a gun on campus. Easy to want to overlook "youth" and them doing stupid stuff until a life is taken or someone is seriously hurt. Until you have seen a teacher who was hit by a middle schooler and ringing in his ear as a result of the blow and had to have his rotator cuff repaired will you see the point. That same juvenile threw a female teacher into a door frame 2 years later and tore her rotator cuff which had to be repaired can I chalk it up to just doing stupid stuff. I've had students tell me that that do what they do and act the way they do at school "because there is only so much you all can do to me." You tell me they don't understand the system? Been in the game 20 years and I can't buy that. Walk in the shoes of the educators today and then tell me what you think.

  • Shane Taylor Apr 14, 2015
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    Because we were allowed to raise our children as we saw fit without the g'ment getting involved...Now, "Time out" is all we have...Fortunately, I instilled discipline early on and don't have to worry about my kid going off on a teacher...

  • Gary Greene Apr 14, 2015
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    Why is it that this type of bill was not necessary 30 to 40 years a go

  • Matt Wood Apr 14, 2015
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    No, I'm saying that we already make concessions based on age in our laws (juvenile court, sealed juvenile records, etc.) because we realize that with age comes experience, and with experience comes wisdom. To treat a 16-year-old the same as a 40-year-old is not right. We already have laws that address this issue, to make them harsher is not going to solve the problem.

  • Mara Sky Apr 14, 2015
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    This is complete so unnecessary. The school to prison pipeline is alive and well. Parent of children with special needs prepare for this fight.

  • Barbara Sossomon Apr 14, 2015
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    So in your logic, people should not be held responsible for their actions until they are 21? They can do anything until they are 21 and get away scott free?

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