By Jane Wettach & Jason Langberg
North Carolina already has a massive school-to-prison pipeline and an alarming number of youth in the adult criminal system, and both crises may soon worsen. Rep. Jerry Tillman filed SB 343 (“Student Assault on Teacher/Felony Offense”) on March 19th. The bill would automatically make it a Class I felony offense for a student who is 16 years of age or older to assault a school employee.
SB 343 is unnecessary and will not improve school safety. First, assault on a school employee is already a Class A1 misdemeanor – the most serious misdemeanor on the books – and assault on a school employee that inflicts serious bodily injury is already a felony. Additionally, assault on a school official is already prohibited by student codes of conduct and already often results in suspension from school. Very few assaults cause any serious injury; only 49 in-school assaults caused significant injury in 2013-14, and that includes student-on-student assaults as well as assaults on school personnel.
Second, making the penalty for assault on a school employee harsher will have no deterrent effect. National Institute of Justice research shows that increasing criminal penalties for an offense does not serve as a deterrent. This is particularly true when the offense typically consists of a reflexive action with no premeditation, which accounts for most of the assaults on teachers. According to Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg, two of the foremost experts in the fields of adolescent development and juvenile crime, “little evidence supports the claim that adolescents are deterred from criminal activity by the threat of harsh sanctions[.]” This is true, at least in part, because findings from social science and neuroscience show that youths are less mature, more impulsive, and more susceptible to peer influence. In other words, as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, youths are unlikely to conduct a cost-benefit analysis (i.e., compare the benefits of their behavior to the costs of the possible consequences) prior to their actions.
Third, more than half of assaults on school personnel are committed by students with disabilities; many of these so-called assaults are unintentional, such as in situations where a student is trying to be free of unwelcome restraint. The original version of SB 343 included all students, which would have resulted in a seriously disproportionate impact on students with special needs. Fortunately, the latest edition of SB 343 excludes students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 Plans. Nevertheless, it still includes students with emotional and other challenges that do not have special education plans.
SB 343 will result in punishments that do not fit the crime. In North Carolina, there are two types of assault: one involving no physical contact and one involving physical contact. When there is no physical contact, an assault is a forceful act or attempt to cause some immediate physical injury to another person, which is sufficient to cause the other person to fear immediate physical injury. When there is uninvited physical contact, however slight, an assault occurs even if the other person was not put in fear. Consequently, under SB 343 an “assault on a teacher” could include completely unintentional conduct and conduct that causes no injury whatsoever. Examples of conduct that would be considered felony assault include: running down the hallway and mistakenly bumping into a teacher; throwing a paper wad at another student and accidentally hitting a teacher’s foot with it instead; and inadvertently knocking into a teacher while trying to help break up a fight.
SB 343 will contribute to racial disparities in the school-to-prison pipeline. Regardless of the “reasonable person” standard used in assault cases, the definition is still vague and decisions to report, prosecute, and convict for assault are still subjective. School discipline research demonstrates that racial disparities are more pronounced for subjective offenses because stereotypes and unconscious bias have more room to influence decision-making.
SB 343 will have devastating impacts for young people and for public safety. First, all students charged under SB 343 will go directly into the adult criminal system. North Carolina is the only state in the United States that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system. Youths charged as adults in North Carolina may be held in adult jails and prisons where they are: (1) at a heightened risk of assault, sexual victimization, abuse, and death; (2) less likely to receive developmentally appropriate, rehabilitative services, and educational programming that are more common in juvenile facilities; and (3) more likely to recidivate after being released.
Second, felony convictions can never be expunged in North Carolina. They also come with a profound stigma and a host of lifelong collateral consequences, including denial of admission to K-12 public school, loss of driving privileges, difficulty gaining admission to college, loss of public benefits, eviction from public housing, reduced employment prospects, and deportation. These consequences make it difficult or impossible for an individual to become a productive, economically secure member of society. Studies show that without the ability to obtain an education or meaningful employment, individuals with felony convictions are more likely to re-offend and be incarcerated.
SB 343 will negatively impact the state. Branding a young person as a felon decreases their chances of continuing education and employment opportunities and increases their chances of eventually spending time in state custody. Thus, convicting a teenager of a felony can lead to a loss of tax revenue for the state and more taxpayer money being spent on incarceration and government assistance.
North Carolina lawmakers should reject SB 343. Instead of passing legislation that will harm students, schools, and the state, our elected officials should invest in developmentally appropriate, proven methods of preventing school violence, such as small class sizes and schools; programs that improve school-wide culture (e.g., Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Safe and Responsive Schools, and Social and Emotional Learning); ample support staff (i.e., teacher assistants, guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists); and productive alternatives to suspension and court involvement (e.g., restorative justice, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, community service, and high quality alternative schools).
Jane Wettach and Jason Langberg are on the advisory board of Youth Justice North Carolina.