Despite concerns of overcriminalization, a Senate committee on Wednesday gave the first nod to a bill that would make it a felony offense for older students to assault school employees.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) said the provision would protect school personnel who faced more than 1,300 assaults in the last school year, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
“It needs some serious attention to highlight that this is a problem and you will get more than a slap on a hand if this occurs,” said Tillman.
Assaulting school personnel is currently a Class A1 misdemeanor and is only considered a felony if it leads to serious physical injury. Under the current bill, any assault committed by students over the age of 16 would be considered a felony.
Some senators like Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, raised concerns about what that could lead to.
“We’re creating a potential felony for a situation that doesn’t necessarily involve inflicting serious bodily injury…it may not even involve touching,” he said.
Tillman said he would work on further defining assaults for the purposes of the bill, so that an “inadvertent push” or anything of that nature is not considered an assault.
Still, some lawmakers argued the bill could hinder future opportunities for students.
“In North Carolina you can’t get a felony expunged, so their [students] lives would basically be over,” said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash.
Bryant noted that a felony record could pose difficulties for future employment, college admission and housing.
“We’re setting up a spiraling effect that may be bigger than the problem we’re trying to solve,” she said.
Lawmakers recently tweaked the bill to exempt students with disabilities, but some teacher and children advocates said the measure would still be problematic.
“There will still be students who have emotional issues that may result in some unintentional conduct,” said Duke Law professor and director of the Children’s Law Clinic Jane Wettach.
Wettach said more than half of the 1,300 assaults last school year were committed by students with disabilities.
When asked about what other things schools could do to help prevent violence in schools, Tillman responded by saying that many students already receive counseling, suspension and social services.
“These kids – most of them – have already been through the gamut of everything they can try up to making it a felony,” Tillman said.