New Missouri law makes bullying, fighting in school a felony

Posted at 5:28 PM, Jan 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-10 19:56:57-05

Schools in Missouri serve as mandatory reporters, which means when teachers or administrators spot potential abuse or neglect, they must report it to law enforcement.

Now that law extends to bullying and harassment that takes place on school grounds. The law, which took effect Jan. 1, increases harassment crimes from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Below is the full interview 41 Action News conducted with Susan Goldammer, the attorney for the Missouri School Boards' Association.

41 Action News: What does the Missouri School Boards' Association do?

Susan Goldammer: We help public school districts in a variety of ways. Our organization does lobbying. We do a lot of training for administrators and school board members. We help take the laws that get past and make them more understandable for school employees."

41: How does the new law on harassment affect schools?

SG: Jan. 1, first it was redefined a little bit more narrowly and it became a felony. Right now, first-degree harassment occurs when a person commits the offense of harassment in the first degree if he or she without good cause engages in any act with the purpose of causing emotional distress to another person. If such act does cause such person to suffer "emotional distress." The focus here is causing "emotional distress." With some bullying acts that is what occurs - intentionally causing "emotional distress."

41: How does the law define "emotional distress?"

SG: "Emotional distress" constitutes as something "markedly greater than the uneasiness, nervousness, and happiness, or the like which are commonly experienced in day-to-day living." 

41: Why do schools have to report harassment?

SG: The trouble that we have is not so much how this statue is defined, but there are state laws that mandate that school districts report certain offenses that happened on school property. First-degree harassment is one of those offenses that we are required to report to. We do not have the discretion to not report it.

What has become the news story is that I don't think a lot of parents and students realize that the school districts don't have the discretion to not report when these particular criminal acts that happen on school property

41: How does mandated reporting work?

SG: The mandated reporting laws require that we contact law enforcement. For most of our students, they are under the age of 17 and that would probably be the juvenile office. For the students that are 17 or older, we would call the police.

41: Will all calls to law enforcement result in felonies?

SG: Just because the school district reports an offense it doesn't mean that any subsequent action will take place. It is up to the discretion of law enforcement, the juvenile office, [and] the prosecutors to determine whether a student should be charged with a crime or if action needs to be brought in juvenile court regarding the actions of the particular students. So there is a lot of discretion on the law enforcement end of it to determine if this actually results in any kind of criminal record for the students, but school districts do not have that discussion.

41: What do parents need to know going forward?

SG: Parents and students always need to know that the actions of their students have consequences. What school districts, in particular, want parents to know is that there are some circumstances where we do not have a choice but are required to contact law enforcement. That does not mean that charges will be brought against their student, but they do need to know that currently, Missouri state statute does require that we report first-degree harassment as well as a number of other laws.

41: Are there downsides?

SG: I do think there are some downsides. I think there could be a waste of resources as far as law enforcement is concerned. My message to parents is that we do have prosecutors, juvenile officers, law enforcement - they are not interested in pursuing petty offenses that can be resolved between students and parents. They don't have enough resources as it is and they spend their resources in situations that they think are not going to be otherwise resolved.

I don't want parents to think that just because we contact law enforcement that their child is going to end up with a felony charge.

That said, MSBA is concerned that administrators and teachers are going to end up calling law enforcement which takes time, and then law enforcement and prosecutors are going to have to review actions and use up some of their precious time and resources in determining whether legal action to be taken against a student. We don't want to waste resources, we do appreciate law enforcement and we appreciate their willingness to come and help schools. Our concern really is with the mandated reporting law. We really do hope that the state legislature takes the time to revisit those mandatory reporting laws and give school districts a little bit more discretion.



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