A legislative proposal to make the assault of a public school teacher by a student an automatic felony worries some groups and lawmakers who are concerned it could create unintended, lifelong consequences for young people.
The Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to create the new penalty if the alleged assault of a school employee by someone at least 16 years old occurs on school property when the employee is trying to do their job.
The Department of Public Instruction recorded more than 1,333 such assaults on school personnel during the 2013-14 school year, compared to 834 recorded 10 years earlier, but many aren’t reported, said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the bill sponsor.
Current law makes such an assault the highest grade of misdemeanor for any teenage student. Elevating it to the lowest grade of a felony would add gravity to the crime, Tillman said.
“It’s a serious offense that needs some serious attention,” said Tillman, adding that the change would show “you will get more than a slap on the hand.”
But other senators said the common-law definition of assault may be too broad, which could lead to the prosecution of students who show some kind of force or intimidation or inadvertently touch a teacher, but don’t strike a teacher intentionally.
Under current law, assaulting a school employee or volunteer is a high-grade misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail if the defendant has no prior criminal record. The judge has discretion to suspend the sentence or require community-based punishment.
Students with no criminal record would face no prison time for the lowest-grade felony envisioned in the bill. But compared to a misdemeanor, one senator said, a felony is a more serious stain on their record. Felonies often serve as a barrier preventing young adults from getting jobs, attending college or receiving other benefits, said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash.
“We’re talking about basically hindering … the opportunities for these particular children, who obviously already have some kind of problem,” Bryant said. “Their life would basically be over.”
Tillman had already changed the bill to add an exemption for “exceptional children,” or those with student disabilities. Last year’s reported assaults on school personnel were essentially evenly divided between students with disabilities and regular students, according to a DPI report.
The bill now heads to a judiciary committee, where Tillman said he would work with other senators to fine-tune the details, in particular the definition of assault.
Teacher lobbying groups either are split on the measure or haven’t publicly expressed their views on the bill. The Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina supports the legislation. President Judy Kidd said those who attack teachers should be punished severely, as those who assault police officers are under current law.
Representatives of Disability Rights North Carolina and the North Carolina School Boards Association said separately they still have concerns about the measure.
“If they can come up with a definition for assault that is a narrower definition, I think we would be much more comfortable with the bill than we are currently,” said Leanne Winner, the school boards association lobbyist.
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