Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday voted in favor of a bill that would make it a felony for a student to assault a teacher.
"We're having more and more serious attacks by students on teachers in the classroom," said sponsor Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. "We had about 1,300 and some reported attacks on teachers last year, and many of these, I'm sorry to say, do not get reported."
Under Senate Bill 343, a student who is 16 or older could be charged with a felony for an assault on a teacher. It's currently an A1 misdemeanor and would remain one for students under 16.
"It's a serious offense and needs some serious attention," Tillman told the committee. "You will get more than a slap on the hand if this occurs."
Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, asked how the state defines "assault." Legislative staff said the term isn't currently defined in statute, but it can be applied to anything from an actual physical attack to physical intimidation or threat of attack.
Tillman said the district attorney would have discretion in applying the felony charge, as would a judge.
"Some attacks are much more violent than others and much more vicious, and some are not," he said, adding as an example that a teacher "might get inadvertently hit trying to break up a fight."
Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, pointed out that an assault inflicting serious bodily injury is already a felony.
"We are creating a potential felony for a situation that doesn't necessarily involve serious physical injury," Hartsell said. "We're creating a felony for an assault that may not even involve a touching."
Tillman said he would work with attorneys in the bill's next stop, the Senate Judiciary II Committee, to narrow and fine-tune its definition of "assault."
"I'm talking about those attacks that do involve physical attacks that may not involve injury," Tillman said. "They're not necessarily bodily injury but they have to be more than a push."
Sen Angela Bryant, D-Nash, sounded a note of caution about the bill's potential consequences.
"By creating this felony, even if we narrow it, we're talking about basically hindering the opportunities for these children who obviously already have some kind of problem," Bryant warned, noting that a felony record could well keep the student from getting a job, getting into college or even being able to return to school.
"It would even limit the opportunity for housing for their families," she said. "We're setting up a spiraling effect that may be bigger comparatively speaking than the problem we're trying to solve."
"Their life would basically be over," she added.
Others on the panel said the bill should do more to emphasize personal responsibility and punish poor parenting.
"I know when I was going to school, the assault would have taken place when I got home," said Sen.Harry Brown, R-Onslow. "That's what's changed in society, and it's a shame that you've even got to have this bill. Parents just didn't allow these things to happen back in my time."
Asked whether he had consulted the "educational community" about the proposal, Tillman said he had not heard from them, adding that no teacher or group has voiced opposition to it.
"None of us want teachers under attack, and that's why I'm doing it," Tillman said. "I think it's time to act and not go back and make these halfway measures."