Raleigh, N.C. — 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."