In a presumed effort to toughen up on less serious crimes, the state of Missouri now classifies a third-degree assault as a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

In a presumed effort to toughen up on less serious crimes, the state of Missouri now classifies a third-degree assault as a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

Third-degree assault, as defined by Missouri statute, happens when “A person... knowingly causes physical injury to another person.”

This could mean a punch, a slap or something similar not as serious a say, stabbing someone with a kitchen knife, would qualify as a felony.

We respect law enforcement and their often difficult job of maintaining order. We respect the judicial and its challenging role in determining truth from fiction. We respect the desire to enact strict penalties on people who make the erroneous decision to harm someone else.

Where we run into difficulty is when various state statutes cross paths and as a result can turn school districts into criminal factories. Such is the case with the redefinition of third-degree assault as it relates to education.

School districts are rightfully required to report a myriad of offenses to local law enforcement if an incident occurs at school or on school property. The list of crimes district are mandated to report include rape, kidnapping and a number of other serious offenses.

Those offenses are listed in section 160.261.1 of Missouri State Statute. Yet according to a different section, 167.117.1, districts must also report third-degree assault — a felony now — unless the district has a written agreement with how to handle those situation with local law enforcement.

For the layperson, that means the letter of the law may dictate that a playground scrap — while not good behavior — could wind up with a much more serious and long-lasting penalty than in previous years.

These sometimes ambiguous changes leaves school districts and parents wondering to whom responsbility falls for a misbehaving child. As Hannibal superintendent Susan Johnson said in an interview, “When you’re an administrator, you’re not a policeman. You’re not a lawyer. You’re there to work with children.”

Children make mistakes and they should face punishments for those mistakes.

But children are children and must be given an opportunity to learn appropriately from mistakes made, not labeled a criminal at a far-too-young age.

Consider this anecdote provided by Johnson:

Fifth graders come inside from recess.

They’ve played a game of kickball and they’re tired, sweating, and out of breath.

There’s a water fountain.

Two boys race to the fountain and a tussle ensues. One boy is shoved by the other and falls down, hitting his head.

Is that a crime? Depending on how you interpret state statute, maybe.

The word “knowingly” in the definition of third-degree assault throws a wrench in the interpretation of the law.

In the example, those boys knew tussling over a trip of the water fountain was wrong and could cause an injury. On the contrary, there was no intent to cause harm.

Only intent .... to drink.

Unfortunately, crossing state statutes leaves question marks in terms of what is a crime in a school building, and what is just a part of child development.

School teachers and administrators are the experts in child development. For many instances, the consequences for misbehaving and bullying should be left to them.

Otherwise, we risk criminalizing kids who don’t deserve it.