The changes stem from legislation passed in 2014 that also increases maximum fines for felonies and misdemeanors and creates a fourth degree of assault. The changes do not mention schools, and it’s unclear how schools and law enforcement will interpret them. Many school administrators were learning about the changes this week.

Starting Jan. 1, third-degree assault and some cases of harassment will become class E felonies. Harassment will be a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, if the victim suffers “emotional distress” from an act committed with that purpose. The state considers harassment to be a form of school bullying, and harassment is among the offenses school districts are technically required to report to local law enforcement.

Also under the new law, a person who “knowingly causes physical injury to another person” will have committed the felony of third-degree assault.

At least two area school districts, Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant, have already interpreted that definition to mean that any student, no matter their age, who gets in a fight can be charged with a felony.

Both districts issued dramatically worded messages that warn families their children can be charged with felonies for fighting.

Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Joseph Davis said Wednesday in a YouTube video to families and students:

“You have the power to decide if you want a good future full of hope and promise or a future with a criminal record that follows you and limits your options. … If you choose to fight, starting Jan. 1, the stakes are higher.”

Legal counsel for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, considered to be the key legislative adviser for Missouri schools, is worried the changes could criminalize students and reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline — the phenomenon in which youths, particularly those of color, are punished by institutions early on and are more likely to become incarcerated. . .

State law requires school districts to report more than two dozen kinds of criminal acts to police if committed on school property, on a school bus or at a school function. Those include drug possession, possession of a weapon, harassment and assault in the first, second and third degrees.

But many districts handle incidents such as school fights on their own, using discipline and anti-bullying policies. Some also have agreements with police that outline factors to consider before reporting third-degree assault . . .

These changes to state law come at a time when schools are increasingly trying to use services such as counseling to reduce the need for punitive discipline of young students. Many don’t want to see their students have negative exposure to law enforcement early on.”

Woman holding hand of young child marching to end 'school-to-prison pipeline.'

March to end bullying law & ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’

Do you think the new law is racist?