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Missouri students who fight at school could soon receive prison time no matter how old they are

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The state of Missouri is ramping up the school-to-prison pipeline next year with the enforcement of a new state statute that goes into effect on Jan. 1 that calls for students who get into fights to be charged with felonies, Think Progress reports.

News of the statute, which was released by the Hazelwood School District, notes, “if a person commits the offense of an assault in the third degree this will now be classified as a Class E Felony, rather than a misdemeanor.” This means that if two students engage in a physical altercation and one is injured, the student can now be charged with a felony “no matter the age or grade level.”

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Per Think Progress:

That type of assault can result in four years of prison time, fines, or probation. Attempts or threats to cause harm will be treated as a Class A misdemeanor, which can lead to a year of prison time. If law enforcement or school officials consider the assaulted person a “special victim,” a student can be charged with a Class D felony that comes with a maximum prison term of seven years.

Such harshly punitive measures only harm the students who will be affected by these policies. Students will have more damage to their criminal records — and from an earlier age before they are able to truly understand the impact — that will follow them over the course of their lives.

Similarly, as Think Progress notes, without the understanding of the societal, economic, and political impacts of a harsh sentence on a criminal record, such a punishment for a fight at school won’t necessarily register in a way that deters students from acting.

Students of color are already predominately affected by the school-to-prison pipeline, which is the early criminalization of young people in schools targeted by law enforcement and the justice system.

According to the ACLU, “zero-tolerance” policies — such as a felony charge for fighting — lead to the criminalization of students for infractions that should be dealt with in the school rather than by the legal system.

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Think Progress notes that in particular, black students are more likely to be treated as “dangerous” and receive harsher punishments from their teachers, and Missouri in particular is already recognized for “racial discrepancies” in school discipline.

The Civil Rights Project notes that Missouri ranks as the state in the country with the largest gap in the way students are disciplined in schools based on race. In 2011-2012, Missouri elementary schools suspended “14.4 percent of their black students at least once” compared to just 1.8 percent of white students.

The implementation of Missouri’s new law will likely only exacerbate the existing criminalization of young students of color.

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