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St. Louis-area schools adopt new behavior policies based on change to Missouri criminal code

Hazelwood West seniors Yonnas Wole, Richard Spivey and Mallory Bachheit talk while they wait for district administrators to respond to their call for a meeting on Thurs., May 18, 2017.
File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Hazelwood West seniors Yonnas Wole, Richard Spivey and Mallory Bachheit talk while they wait for district administrators to respond to their call for a meeting on May 18.

A semester after changes to Missouri’s criminal code sparked concern that school fights could result in felony charges, St. Louis-area school districts say there’s been little impact.

Yet, several districts have amended or are working to update discipline policies and behavior programs partly in response to the new law.

Initially, there was confusion over the new criminal code after two St. Louis County school districts, Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant, sent out warnings. But after talking with attorneys, the districts learned the changes made it less likely a school fight will result in charges.

Ferguson-Florissant Superintendent Joseph Davis said the video message he posted in December was misinterpreted; his goal was always to help students stay in school.

“If I had it to do over again, I would say some things a little different, but I would keep saying make good choices, make good choices. That’s what I say to my son all the time,” Davis said.

Ferguson-Florissant recently approved a new behavior policy intended to reduce the number of suspensions, upping the number of office referrals that must happen before a suspension. However, Davis said, a fight would still result in a suspension.

Hazelwood spokeswoman Kimberly McKenzie said the district had no issues this past semester.

“The way we discipline students hasn’t changed,” McKenzie said, adding that the district’s student discipline handbook is “established at the end of the year” and hasn’t changed.

The district posted a letter in December that said the state statutes “may have a drastic impact on how incidents are handled in area school districts.” The community pushed back.

Civil rights attorney Elad Gross recently said the news that Hazelwood hadn’t had any issues with the new law was “very good to hear.”

“They should not have made any changes. The new criminal code was actually just the old criminal code renumbered,” said Gross, who has been talking with school districts throughout the state to make sure they understand the law.

“ … (T)hey were one of the last districts that we were able to communicate with and hopefully get an understanding. I’m very happy to hear that they do have that understanding,” said Gross.

Meanwhile, Parkway Schools is working with all of the police departments that have jurisdiction in the district to come up with a common definition for assault.

“We want to make sure that we’re all on the same page and that we’re not responding to student behavior differently, say at Parkway West for example, than we are at Parkway North,” said Michael Barolak, the district’s student discipline coordinator.

The Ritenour school district, meanwhile, adopted a new bullying prevention program this spring to reduce the likelihood of harassment charges.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille