A new Missouri law set to take effect this month will treat school fights—between students—as a felony. Students caught fighting could face third-degree-assault charges and up to four years in prison, regardless of their age or grade level.
Lest anyone think this is an effort to take on school violence, let’s be clear: This is about capitalizing on racial fear, about control, about fear of protesting youth, about disenfranchising a future generation of citizens of color. Prior to this new law, students were being punished for tardiness, speaking out in class, chewing gum, any form of perceived disrespect. And the end result is that these students are being pushed from the path of possibility down a dead-end road of criminalization and incarceration and increased marginalization.
This law further erodes the educational mission of schools, turning the classroom, lunchroom, and the schoolyard into a high-crime area warranting increased patrols and surveillance. Not only does it empower local cops to arrest students engaging in fighting, but prosecutors, who can charge rumbling kids with assault in the third degree—a Class E felony—which can lead to four years of lockup, probation, or monetary fines. Students accused of threatening to or attempting to cause harm can lead to a child to be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and be sentenced to a year in jail. And if the assaulted person is determined by officials to be a “special victim,” the charge can be classified as a Class D felony—which comes with a seven-year maximum term.
Unfortunately, many public schools rely on suspensions and/or arrests of students because their faculty is overwhelmed and lacking the professional staff needed to attend to classroom-management issues. But at the root of this travesty lay deep layers of institutionalized bias. Because no matter that all children act out—that “kids will be kids” excuse does not seem to apply to Black children, who are perceived as dangerous. As a result they are more harshly punished than their non-black peers. According to the Department of Education, just 18 percent of preschoolers across the nation are Black, but 48 percent of those Black students are being put out of school via suspensions.
Things don’t improve upon matriculation from preschool. Black elementary-school children are generally more likely to be suspended than their peers of other races across the country, according to a 2015 national report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. Through middle and high school, black students face disproportionate suspensions and expulsions. Of the 16,244 public-school students who are expelled each day in this country, 6,191 are Black.
As our nation would seem to work overtime to dehumanize and criminalize young Black people, the realities, complexities, and contradictions of school culture are being ignored:
1. All kids fight, no matter their race or socioeconomic background. And they’re kids: Their brains are still developing, they haven’t mastered the logic, reasoning, and conflict-resolution skills to more effectively regulate their emotions or their responses.
2. Bullying. Some kids have no choice but to defend themselves against their bullies. This was powerfully portrayed in the Golden Globe–winning film, Moonlight, which introduced a boy who, for years, had been chased and taunted by classmates—one vile kid in particular—and finally had enough. As a teen, he hit his tormentor with a chair. As in life, he was deemed the perp and promptly locked up.
3. Bullying in the home. This is perhaps the biggest and most overlooked cause, as I’ve come to discover in my research for my forthcoming book, Spare the Kids: Why Whooping Kids Won’t Save Black America. Kids who are being bullied and hit by their parents or caretakers, who believe that the only way they can get their child to act right at school is to spank them at home. But the studies and science shows this is counterintuitive. Students who experience physical violence at home are more likely to repeat those behaviors at school and elsewhere, thus feeding them right into the criminal justice system. Why? Because kids learn by example that might is right, that conflicts can be resolved—and people can be bent to their will—by using aggression and violence.
National discipline data shows that there is disproportionate application of negative consequences to poor students and students of color. These students often come to school with more traumatic life experiences, more unsolved problems, and fewer conflict-resolution skills.
And this new Missouri law is taking the power out of the hands of parents and school administrators, and hands it over to the inescapable, fascist, militarized, for-profit police state.
4. The American way. We live in a nation that historically solves its “problems” and dominates other countries through force. Young people don’t even witness their own government employing diplomacy to resolve issues; this reinforces what they may be experiencing at home.
5. Masculinity is defined through domination. If we want to change the culture of fighting, change how we define and imagine what it means to be a “man.”
While this law reflects this nation’s long history of criminalizing Black youth—which continues to unfold—it also speaks specifically to Missouri, where nearly half (more than 45 percent) of Black children are living in poverty, as recently reported by the Department of Education. Legislation like this continues to racially stratify abuse within Missouri schools, where paddling is permitted—Missouri is a paddling state—with an average of more than 5,000 students hit each year. A disproportionate number of those students facing the brunt of paddle are Black or have disabilities. Many districts across the country that allow paddling have an “immunity clause”—which means that teachers and administrators cannot be prosecuted if they injure a child. So while educators in Missouri can paddle students with wooden boards, they’re ready to criminalize students who fight at school.
“In a nation that spends more to incarcerate children than to educate them, we do not need a single additional law criminalizing our kids. But even more important, how can a nation that has for centuries condoned the brutal treatment of children by caregivers, from politicians and police to abusive parents, now criminalize children for being a mirror held up to a violent and unequal society?” asks Malkia Cyril, an activist and the executive director of the Center for Media Justice. “We must not use the law to cause more harm. We must attack violence at its root, not its perpetual victims.”
Cyril argues that this country has never been interested in justice—it was built on vengeance, power, hypocrisy, and control while miring itself in its myths, its fictitious mirrors. “Our kids are the mirror. They show the rest of us who we are.”
Missouri—where Ferguson and some of the most prominent Black Lives Matters protests took place—is a heavily Black state, with a fast-growing Latinx population. Officials feel the demographic pressure and have put this law in place to criminalize Black and brown children as early as possible—the better to feed them into the criminal-justice system, limit their rights and opportunities in life. Other states will be keep a close eye on how this law works in Missouri as they may consider it for their institutions.
But will Missouri’s new law really be effective in combatting the increase of school violence plaguing the nation? Not at all. In fact, many experts say that the incidence of school violence is dropping across the country.
“In general, schools are far safer now than they were 20 years ago,” said Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and education professor at the University of Virginia told the Atlantic last summer. “Every major study in recent years has shown that schools are much safer than the communities around them. Students are much more likely to be injured in restaurants than on school grounds.”
The 2015 Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report, an annual study produced by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that between 1992 and 2014, the number of students who were victims of crimes at school declined 82 percent, from 181 incidents per 1,000 students in 1992 to 33 incidents per 1,000 students in 2014.
Cyril explains that "no one really knows exactly why violent crime rates rise and fall, so anyone who tries to correlate national trends to one factor like punishment would be lying.” She adds, “What we do know is that many factors contribute to the violent behavior of children, and one of those factors is that they are treated violently. Social science and history shows us that the best way to curb violence is to increase justice: healthy food, recreation, quality education, housing fit for human beings, dignity and rights. A violent system creates violence, it doesn't curb it."
This Draconian law potentially condemns children to lives without voting rights, career prospects, housing options, or the opportunity to serve on the very juries that could convict them. Arrest records, even when charges are dropped, often trail youngsters into adulthood. Records, especially for teenagers tried as adults, have become more accessible on the internet, but are often incomplete or inaccurate. Employers, banks, college-admissions officers and landlords, among others, routinely check records online. Whether or not they’re accurate, the young people are often denied both their basic rights and the option to pursue positive life options as a result.
Not even juvenile records are sealed—and only a small percentage of juveniles nationally know that they must request that their records be closed or removed.
Schools are America’s gateway for young people to enter the criminal (in)justice system. Recognizing the growing problem of students being unfairly disciplined, two years ago, the Justice and Education departments both issued guidelines on school discipline that warned school-based police officers to “not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters.” The Justice Department filed lawsuits challenging disciplinary procedures around the country.
But that was then. This Missouri law does the opposite, a glimpse of what we will likely be seeing under a Trump administration—especially with someone like Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.
The school systems aren’t trying to improve the classroom—they’re looking at ways to punish students for their structural inequities. If they keep cramming more students into each class and pushing out teachers of color, and then announce a zero-tolerance approach to their misbehaviors, it then it seems perfectly logical to criminalize the students. Rather than offering students guidance to improve their behavior and become better problem solvers, they’re being slapped with severe punishment as a form of pedagogy designed to feed and support a police state. Which is how fascists control society’s most marginalized people.
And if you can’t provide young people with a living wage, decent housing, and education that addresses their needs and humanity, how easy it is, and even logical, to funnel students into the prison system. This fits in with everything else on the agenda of the GOP-led Congress, not least of which voter suppression and ID laws, as they attempt to minimize the numbers of Black people who will even have voting rights. They’re erasing the prerequisites of citizenship permanently and assuring that the society becomes more regressive because these folks won’t be able to vote against them.
This law in Missouri is taking away the key elements of childhood—the opportunity to make mistakes and flawed choices, and to learn to do better. Instead the classroom and the playground enforces and formalizes long-term oppression by turning children into criminals and branding them as parasites of a future they will have no say in creating.
This is exactly why we have to start loving and nurturing and fiercely protecting Black children from all threats internal and external. Being born Black should not be and can no longer be a tragic state of affairs—or an automatic prison sentence.