Students who assault teachers could soon face felony charges in North Carolina, according to a bill that was green-lighted by a Senate committee on Wednesday—despite concerns raised that under the proposed law, even minor infractions could result in a lifetime of lost opportunities for some of the state’s youth.
“We’re having more serious attacks on teachers in the classroom…we’ve had about 1,300 and some reported attacks on teachers last year,” Senate Education /Higher Education committee chair Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) said as he introduced SB 343.
“I think it’s a serious offense and needs some serious attention…you will get more than a slap on the hand if this occurs,” Tillman added.
But what defines an assault became the central question in Wednesday’s debate, as lawmakers tried to sort out whether the unintended consequence of the legislation would be for juveniles committing minor transgressions to be charged with felony offenses that could never be expunged from their records, under North Carolina law.
“This bill could result in serious, permanent obstacles for youth in terms of employment, housing and educational prospects,” said Jane Wettach, Duke University law professor and head of the Children’s Law Clinic in Durham.
Defining an assault
SB 343, co-sponsored by Sens. Krawiec, McInnis, Pate and Ronald Rabin, would make the assault of a teacher a Class I felony for students 16 years of age and older.
Current law classifies assaults as misdemeanors, depending on the severity of the attack. Judges prosecuting students under the proposed law would still retain some discretion when it came to sentencing, Tillman noted. But under his proposed law, students convicted of felony assault would face a minimum sentence of three months in jail.
“How do we define assaults in here?” said Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford), raising what became the key issue of concern among some lawmakers.
Assault is not statutorily defined in North Carolina, according to legislative research staff present at the Senate education committee hearing. Instead, prosecutors would consider assault to be either an action that is a violent physical strike, or a “show of force,” that may include unintentional, slight touching of another person that did not result in injury.
Both types of scenarios would be considered assault under this law—and, potentially, felony offenses.
Legislative research staff also clarified that an assault resulting in serious bodily injury could already be considered as a felony, if the injury is particularly severe and could result in death, a lengthy illness, or if a weapon is used.
“To me the issue here becomes what is the definition of an assault for the purposes of creating a felony,” said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus). “Because what we’re doing here is we are creating a potential felony for a situation that doesn’t necessarily involve inflicting serious bodily injury…that’s the concern that I have.”
Tillman says further work is needed to define an assault, and that’s up to a judiciary committee to sort out.
“I’m talking about those attacks that do involve physical attacks that may not involve injury,” said Tillman. “They may not involve bodily injury but it’s not just an inadvertent push or shove, it’s got to be more than that.”
Duke law professor Jane Wettach says the data on assaults presented by the bill’s sponsor doesn’t tell the full story of what is happening in the state’s schools.
Senator Tillman said more than 1,300 attacks of a violent nature occurred in 2013-14. Half of those attacks were committed by students with disabilities – a data point Tillman failed to point out.
Disabled students, as identified as those who have an individualized education plan (IEP), would be exempt from the proposed law by way of a provision not included in the original version of the bill but contained in the committee substitute version debated Wednesday.
Wettach also said the 1,300+ number included all committed assaults on school grounds, which can either be of a violent nature or simply a show of force that may result in unintentional contact.
“In my personal experience, I’ve seen a lot of students charged for unintentional, non-injurious contact,” said Wettach.
One common situation that occurs in schools is when students get into a fight and a teacher gets in the middle to break it up. If a teacher gets unintentionally hit as students are fighting, an assault charge could result from that situation.
Under Senator Tillman’s proposed law, that assault charge could result in a felony conviction.
“So the message is a 16 year old that engages in this one act is irredeemable…that’s so sad to me,” said Wettach. “We’re just going to dump these kids? To me, Tillman is saying ‘we just don’t care’.”
The proposed law has serious ramifications for North Carolina’s youth because in this state, children age 16 and older are treated as adults in the criminal justice system.
“In any other state, you would have to be 18 to be subject to a felony conviction that would stay on your record,” said Wettach.
“This bill is particularly troubling in North Carolina since we treat 16 year olds as if they were adults, and a felony conviction is not an expungable conviction,” added Wettach.
If you are a felon, your prospects for employment, housing, and higher education are diminished.
Federal law gives public housing authorities the ability to deny felons admission to housing and can even evict them. Local school boards can deny felons admission to public schools.
And, says Wettach, recent surveys indicate that more than half of North Carolina’s employers will not hire people with criminal records.
“Are we really looking at the big picture in terms of using this particular approach to attack the problem of the safety for teachers,” asked Sen. Angela Bryant (D-?) during the debate of the proposed law.
“In terms of future employment, we’re basically eliminating for [children with felony convictions] any opportunity for future employment,” said Bryant. “In North Carolina you can’t get a felony expunged, so basically their life would be over.”
There are alternative approaches to deal with violence in schools, as highlighted by Senator Davis, who asked Senator Tillman what’s already being done within the education community to deescalate violent behavior.
“They do everything with guidance counselors, in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, counseling, social services—these kids have already, most of them, been through the gamut of everything that they can try, up to making it a felony,” said Tillman.
“I think it’s time to act and not go back and make these halfway measures,” added Tillman. “Many of them have already been tried.”
The bill moves on to a Senate judiciary committee next.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]