Commentary

Veteran educator speaks out from experience against bill to make student assaults on teachers a felony

When Charlotte native and veteran teacher Scott Yamanashi saw NC Policy Watch reporter Lindsay Wagner’s recent news story (“Lawmakers move bill that would make it a felony offense for a student to assault a teacher”), he felt compelled to speak out. It turns out that Mr. Yamanashi has extensive direct experience in the area. Not only has he spent several years as the de facto disciplinarian at multiple schools, he has also seen from his own family’s experience how a felony conviction acquired as a teen can seriously damage a person’s life.

Making felons of troubled teens is not the answer
By Scott Yamanashi

State senators in Raleigh are currently pushing a proposal (Senate Bill 343) that would make it a felony for a student to assault a teacher. As a 12-year veteran teacher and Charlotte native currently enrolled full-time as a graduate student in Educational Administration in order to become a principal, I certainly appreciate the intentions of the sponsors. Unfortunately, the proposal would ultimately cause many more problems than it would solve.

First, it should be acknowledged that violence is a genuine problem in our schools. Often, “tough love” is needed to address the decline in attentive parenting and two-parent homes and the lack of academic and behavioral integrity these trends help breed within our student populations.

I should also add that I have never been attacked and only threatened a couple of times in my career. But I am also six feet five inches tall, almost three hundred pounds, and have been a part-time bouncer for twenty-four years. Needless to say, students don’t even try it with me, and they know I will defend myself and my colleagues with any and all necessary WWE moves I have at my disposal to end the threat in the safest manner possible.

That said, through my years of experience as a “go to” school peacemaker it’s become clear to me that the best and safest campuses are those in which the school administration and teaching core work to effectively instill a school-wide set of effective and consistent discipline policies and procedures, as well as adequate counseling.

These kinds of policies, programs and structures (and the budgetary resources to make them possible) are what our schools desperately need from state leaders more than anything else in order to handle violent, misguided students. Turning more young people into convicted felons won’t help.

On this latter point I speak from direct experience. My younger brother was a sophomore in high school when he got mixed up with the wrong crowd and in June 1988 was prosecuted as an adult and convicted of a felony for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He was and is non-violent and was a rather small kid that got bullied a great deal. I did what I could to fight battles for him and defend him, but when he got in with that crowd (and the school did nothing to try to help) he was on his own and sold drugs to use those delinquent bullies for protection.

After his conviction, our family rallied together, separated him from that group, and withdrew him from school. We essentially got him to drop out of the high school, one of the top 100 in the nation, to save him. Ultimately, he worked his way through community college and UNC, made great grades and became an upstanding citizen. Today, he is a highly paid computer programmer and the financial leader of our family.

Unfortunately, for all his hard work, that 27-year-old felony in which he was tried as an adult continues to hold him back. I cannot tell you how unfair, inappropriate and unethical this type of prosecution was for my brother and children like him.

To this day, he cannot legally buy a gun to defend his home and must disclose his juvenile act to every employer and on every application he fills out. Yes, he made a terrible mistake – just as most of the troubled children targeted by the Senate bill have. But neither he nor they deserve a felony.

Current laws regarding assaults by minors are just and adequate to treat and hold these students accountable. Felony convictions often amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” that lasts far longer than it should.

Yes, there are occasionally special cases that deserve severe punishment, but to use such a broad stroke against all children is illogical. These students need mental health assistance, not a long prison sentence or felony conviction label. That’s why the juvenile justice system was created in the first place.

How many of the students responsible for the mass school shootings of the last twenty years had mental health issues and how many of them got the professional help they needed before committing their heinous acts? We would do much better to provide more alternative schools and to expand mental health screening and counseling for students and parents before we go down the felony conviction road.

Unfortunately, budget cuts continue to reduce our capacity to explore and provide such creative programs.

On this count, I also speak from experience. In 2011, I was hired for a teaching position at Samarkand Youth Development Center in Carthage, North Carolina through the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Unfortunately, right after I was hired, state budget cuts led to the closure of the school that had been used to mentor and enrich troubled youth since 1918.

This example was and is sadly typical of the shortsighted policies our elected officials have been pursuing in this area. We need more efficient, more insightful and less retributive leadership from our state government when it comes to children and public education. Reversing course on this latest proposal from the state Senate would be a good place to start.

Scott Yamanashi is an educator who lives in Charlotte.

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