Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Missouri's New Assault Laws, a Juvenile Justice Whiteboard, and an Interview with a School Resource Officer Coordinator

(If you're here to read about school district reporting requirements, you can read a little about that in this post, or a lot about it here.)

Missouri's new assault laws will not increase prosecutions of kids for school fights.

Our last post described the changes in Missouri assault law and showed that really not much is changing, especially when it comes to kids. For a long time, it seemed that we were the only ones telling it like it is. But, thankfully, St. Louis Public Radio published an article further confirming this truth. They interviewed folks with a lot of experience in the juvenile justice system in Missouri.

But just because the law isn't changing does not mean we do not have a problem! Our juvenile justice system is heavily strained. Our schools are under-resourced. Our communities lack real support. These are big problems that need our attention, and we cannot be distracted by false news reports and mistaken notices about some "new law" that's the exact same as the old.

I have reached out to school districts, police departments, the media, and others to try to get this confusion about the law cleared up in Missouri, and, together, we can get this done. I'll talk about these problems further down in this post and in future ones, but I also think it's important we all understand what a kid faces if the kid ends up in trouble: The juvenile justice system.
Our last post focused on adult criminal law. But that's not where kids enter the justice system. They go through the juvenile court system. Hopefully, this post clarifies what actually happens to kids.

So if a kid gets into a fight, how does this all play out? You can watch our video if you like cats and whiteboards. Or you can just keep reading!

I like whiteboards. A lot. And I like color-coding things. Also a lot. Let's do both.



In Section A, two kids are fighting. Oftentimes, that's the end of that story. No one ever hears about the fight, outside of a few silent witnesses. 
Kids: Don't fight. People get hurt, and it's not going to fix anything. And kids: If you fight at our summer program, you know you'll be sitting doing nothing fun for far too long. So no fighting.

In Section B, an adult may intervene in the fight. At school, this can be a teacher, a principal, or another staff member. If a fight makes it into Section B, it might end there too. Teacher admonishes kids. Done.

At school, there are some reporting requirements. (For our more extensive conversation about this topic, read this blog post.)

A teacher has to tell a principal, and a principal has to tell the superintendent and local police, when someone commits Assault 1st, Assault 2nd, Assault 3rd, Sexual Assault, or Deviate Sexual Assault. Interestingly, this law was not updated for the change in the assault laws. Remember from our previous post that old Assault 3rd is a misdemeanor? Now, Assault 4th will be the misdemeanor. Assault 4th is not included in this reporting law, so there are actually less reporting requirements for school officials starting in 2017.

Another law requires school districts to set a policy for school administrators to report, at a minimum, several major crimes. Neither Assault 3rd nor Assault 4th are included. And this reporting law has been updated!

So, in 2017, the reporting requirements could be the same (if the school district sets such a policy), but the 2017 legal requirements are less than they are currently in 2016, especially with respect to misdemeanor assault.

In Section C, a police officer is involved. This could be because a teacher refers a serious issue to the police, or maybe the police officer was already at the school as a School Resource Officer. 

If a kid makes it through Sections A-C, and the officer believes that something serious happened, the kid would be referred to a juvenile officer.

Now a kid would be involved in a juvenile court, shown in Section D. Unlike what news reports have strongly implied, the kid does not go straight to an adult criminal court, shown in Section E.

Juvenile court is not like adult court. It was designed to help kids deal with bad behavior in a rehabilitative way. A kid may be dealt with informally, such as by receiving a warning or having to check in with a supervisor. A kid may be dealt with more formally if the issue is serious or if the kid is a frequent visitor. In those formal situations, the juvenile officer would file a petition with the court, and a judge would hear evidence to determine what treatment or services a kid needs.

Then how does a kid get to adult criminal court? The kid must be certified to stand trial as an adult. At a hearing, the juvenile officer may recommend it, the judge would have to certify the kid as an adult, and the local prosecutor would have to charge the kid with a crime.

In some situations, a certification hearing is mandatory. That means the court would have to at least consider certifying the kid as an adult. A kid of any age could be certified as an adult for some major crimes, like murder, or Assault 1st (attempt to kill). A typical school fight does not qualify for a mandatory certification hearing.

In other situations, a certification hearing is discretionary, which means that, in these situations, the court doesn't have to look into certifying the kid if the court deems it inappropriate. Discretionary hearings are only available in limited cases. First, the kid must be between 12 and 17 years old. And the alleged crime must be a felony.

So those stories about 5-year-old kids being prosecuted for felony crayon-throwing? They are wrong.

In order to make it to criminal court, a kid has to go through a lot of steps. The system is designed so that kids, except under extreme circumstances, do not end up in adult criminal court. The prosecutors I have spoken with across the state say the same thing.


I spoke with a Sergeant with the Sikeston Department of Public Safety. Sgt. Jon Broom deals with the area's School Resource Officers. I asked him if he knew of any school fights that rose to such a high level to be prosecuted as a felony. He knew of maybe 5 serious fights that could have potentially qualified, but he wasn't sure if they had made it to adult criminal court.

Sgt. Broom was interviewed in one of the first news reports on this topic. He wished the changes to the law had been explained more thoroughly. And kids do need to know that serious fighting can get them in trouble. A kid who hurts someone can end up being referred to juvenile court and may even have to spend a night in detention. So, again, kids: Don't fight.

But 5-year-olds are not going to become felons for throwing crayons.

The change in the law is not a real problem for kids in school fights. 

But one big and very real problem is our juvenile justice system. Kids do not get enough support in the system. Nationally, our juvenile justice systems are strained. Too few staff dealing with too many cases. That leads to kids not receiving the best or, at times, even adequate defenses. That leads to kids falling through the cracks. But rarely does it end up with a kid being convicted of a felony.

Other than the lack of resources, our juvenile justice system also places the juvenile officer in an awkward position. The juvenile system is supposed to rehabilitate kids, and the juvenile officer is supposed to be supportive. But, especially when the situation gets more serious and formal, the juvenile officer may have to act more like a prosecutor than a supporter.

The juvenile justice system in St. Louis County has come under scrutiny from the Department of Justice, and they've recently come to an agreement to reform the system. The Department of Justice report found significant constitutional violations and racial inequity in the system. Those are serious and very real problems.

Of course, our juvenile justice system is deeply interconnected with what is going on in our schools and neighborhoods. The deficiencies in our justice system are a direct result of poverty and societal negligence. Until we deal with the underlying problems of poverty, unemployment, education, and opportunity, there's only so much that even a perfect system of justice can do. Another set of real problems.

And that's why it's important for us to focus our energies on the real problems facing kids. 

And it's important for all of us to do our part. So if you were fired up about those incorrect news stories out there, ALRIGHT! Let's get you involved in the real fight for our kids' future. And if you need help doing that, sign up on our website at www.EdExCo.org or send me an email at Elad@EdExCo.org.
Elad Gross is a former Assistant Attorney General of Missouri. He graduated from Washington University School of Law.

This blog post is not meant to provide legal advice. If you are in need of legal assistance, please contact an attorney.

Elad Gross, J.D.
President and CEO
Education Exchange Corps

No comments :

Post a Comment