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How student bullies could face felony charges in one state

For the last eight years, the Obama Administration has been urging public school systems across the nation to not only do their best to cut down on suspensions and expulsions in order to keep students engaged and on the path to graduation, but also to take steps to stop students from being swept into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

For those unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the phenomenon whereby law enforcement officials become involved in school disciplinary matters and the affected students, rather than learning from the incidents, are actually more likely to re-offend both in and out of school, and ultimately end up behind bars.

While most school districts and, by extension, state lawmakers have demonstrated a willingness to minimize the presence of law enforcement in the halls of their academic institutions, there have been -- and will continue to be -- exceptions.

By way of example, consider the state of Missouri, which recently enacted a wholesale overhaul of its criminal code, including an new definition of the crime of harassment.

Up until the first week of January, Missouri defined "harassment" as a crime that could occur in one of six ways, such as repeated unsolicited communication and the making of threats. Under the new law, however, harassment was given a rather nebulous definition -- any act that "causes emotional distress" -- and, more significantly, elevated from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Educators have expressed concern, however, that the new law, in conjunction with existing mandatory reporting laws, will mean that the criminal justice system will become increasingly involved in otherwise routine disciplinary measures, such that police will need to be contacted every time a student is in emotional distress.

This, they argue, could mean that students who run afoul of the harassment law could find themselves facing more than just in-school behavioral interventions, but actual legal consequences that could affect their future (incarceration, permanent criminal record, etc.).

“This crime was not written with children in mind,” said an attorney with the Missouri School Boards Association. “The mandatory reporting laws have forced school districts to apply this to children, which is going to be really hard.”

While prosecutors in the Show Me State have indicated that the changes the harassment law were not designed to combat school bullying situations and that, while it could be used to prosecute students, such instances would likely be rare.

It will be interesting to see how this situation unfolds and what effect, if any, it has on lawmakers, educators and officials in other states.   

Consider speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible if your child has been threatened with suspension or expulsion, and you would like to learn more about your rights and your options under Florida law.

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