School districts in Missouri recently announced that fights between students on school grounds could potentially result in a felony charge starting in 2017.

“The way the new statue reads, if a person commits the offense of an assault in the third degree this will now be classified as a Class E felony, rather than a misdemeanor. If he or she knowingly causes physical injury to another person (hits someone or has a fight with another individual and an injury occurs) – one or both participants may be charged with a felony.” – Hazelwood School District

The president of the Missouri Prosecutors Association, Amy Fite, claims that the revisions for the  felony assault statutes “actually make it less likely an altercation on school grounds will be considered a felony,” saying instead that the 2016 law already declares assault on school property a felony. Regardless of these legal distinctions, some are concerned that these measures will further target black youth and cement the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection published by the U.S. Department of Education, 2.8 million K-12 students received one or more out-of-school suspensions. Black students were 3.8 more likely than white students to receive these school suspensions.

In addition, between 2004 and 2014, the total U.S. state and federal prison population was 93% male, and of that population, 37% were black, despite the total black population in the U.S. being about 13%.

The latest effort to deter school violence in Missouri may be well-intentioned, but it’s unlikely to succeed. Typical criminology research indicates that altering the severity of a punishment does not do much to deter crime; rather, it is the certainty of getting caught and punished that can help deter crime.

More importantly, however, these measures do not address the root causes of crime and delinquency. When students are getting into fights at schools and committing other delinquent acts, it’s often too late to correct their path. High-risk populations need early and lengthy prevention programs. If effective prevention programs are implemented, then we will witness an increase in attachment to school and a decrease in delinquency.

Farrington & Welsh in “Saving Children from a Life of Crime” outline a number of successful prevention programs. For example, in the Montreal Longitudinal Experimental Study, disruptive (aggressive/hyperactive) boys from low socioeconomic status neighborhoods were identified at age six. Treatment plans, which involved child skills training and parent training programs, lasted from age seven to nine. By age 12, the boys who underwent these programs committed significantly less burglary and theft and were less likely to get into fights than those in the control group.

Upgrading schoolyard fights to felony status (or reaffirming that status) will not do much to actually help communities that are struggling with violence and crime. Prevention programs are the key to healing communities.