Raleigh, N.C. — A bill that would increase the penalty for a student who assaults a teacher passed the state Senate Wednesday.
Senate Bill 345 would leave a first assault on a teacher or school volunteer as a Class A1 misdemeanor, which is what it is under current law. But a second offense could be charged as a Class H felony for a student 16 or older, a crime that carries possible prison time of up to 25 months. A third offense would be a Class G felony, which carries up to 31 months.
It would not apply to students who have Individualized Education Programs or intellectual disabilities. An earlier version of the bill would have made even a first offense a felony, but sponsor Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, revised it downward in the version that passed Wednesday.
Tillman said violence and threats against teachers by students is a growing problem, with more than 3,000 incidents reported around the state last year.
"Society is becoming more violent, and it’s reflected in our schools," he said.
Senate Democrats argued that adding the felony charge would "over-criminalize" behavior problems.
"If we saddle a child with a felony, one that is not expungeable, they will never be able to get a job. They will never be a productive member of society," argued Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe. "There must be other remedies than the school-to-prison pipeline described in this bill."
"This is not a deterrent. These 16-year-old kids – if they can’t manage their behavior," said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, “surely they’re not standing there thinking 'This is an A1 misdemeanor or a felony, and I won’t be able to get a job.'”
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Edgecombe,a former teacher, was unsuccessful in two attempts to amend the bill to lower the charge for the second offense. She told a story about a past encounter with a troubled student who went on to become a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force – a career, she said, that would have been off limits to him had he been charged under the provisions in the bill.
But Republican supporters were adamant.
"What we’ve been trying is not working," said Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie. "We’re having teachers that are leaving because of the threats they receive on a daily basis."
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said the measure doesn't go far enough.
"We need to send forth a bill to put corporal punishment back in our schools because a lot of this comes from no discipline in the early years," Apodaca said.
The vote was 30-20. The measure now goes to the House.