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    Police supervising a school parking lot | Photo: Reuters

Published 23 December 2016

When students in Missouri return to school in January, they could face up to seven years in prison for being in a fight, regardless of age or grade level.

On New Year’s Day, a Missouri law will come into effect which could see any student involved in a fight at school facing felony charges and up to seven years in jail, regardless of their age or grade level.

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The new law is the latest addition to what many have described as the “school to prison pipeline” where school districts invite law enforcement into schools, quickly turning behavior which used to be resolved informally by educators, into “criminal” matters.

One study found that during the 2011-2012 school year, approximately 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement, and of those almost 92,000 students were arrested on school property.

That same study found that school police officers disproportionately target racialized students, a phenomenon brought to public attention in 2015 when students filmed a South Carolina police officer brutally beating a young Black student while she sat at her desk.

The changes to the Missouri law, made quietly in August, were highlighted in a letter to parents and guardians of the Hazelwood School District, before the winter holidays.

“We want to make you aware of a few new State Statutes that will go into effect on January 1, 2017, which may have a drastic impact on how incidents are handled in area school districts.”

The letter describes how school fights, which used to be classified as misdemeanors — punishable with up to a year in jail — will now be considered felonies, “no matter the age or grade level.”

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The letter highlights that the key factor is the presence or absence of a school police officer, sometimes referred to as a School Resource Officer, saying charges could only be brought “if the assault is witnessed by one of the School Resource Officers/police officers” or if they “have to intervene."

"The new law exemplifies the crisis in Missouri with the school-to-prison pipeline," Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the Missouri ACLU, told ATTN: "Schools should not be places where police criminalize young people."

This criminalization was confirmed by one police officer stationed in a Hazelwood public school who appeared to issue a threat to students, telling a local TV station that “just a fist fight could definitely mean a felony. Something that could follow you on down the road and could make life difficult for you.”

Mittman went on to highlight that the Missouri school system is “the worst in the nation in the difference between how it treats white students and black students." Earlier this year, a federal judge found one Missouri school district discriminates against African-American residents in the election of local school board representatives.

The Hazelwood School District includes Ferguson, Missouri, where in 2014 Hazelwood District graduate Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer, helping galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement.

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