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When do a student’s actions turn into a criminal act?

When does fighting in school become assault? Under what circumstances could bullying constitute unlawful hazing? At what point does borrowing an electronic device from someone turn into a theft?

While a majority of parents may not consider these questions every day, they are certainly questions that can arise when a student’s actions cross the line from noncriminal to criminal. The involvement of law enforcement in these cases can be frightening as well as intimidating for students and parents alike, which is why it’s important to understand when actions cross the line.

The difference between criminal and noncriminal actions

As the Virginia Department of Education points out in a 2015 pamphlet concerning student conduct in schools, determining whether a student’s actions constitute a crime or not relies heavily on the partnership between schools and law enforcement.

Between the two entities, clarification is established as to what will be considered a violation of any student codes of conduct and what should be escalated due to the fact that it is a violation of the law.

Take for example bullying in school. Defined in section § 22.1-276.01 of the Code of Virginia, bullying is “any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressors and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma.”

While name-calling, insults, taunting and intimidation would constitute as student misconduct, bullying can escalate when it involves:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Harassment
  • Hazing
  • Threats
  • Extortion

Along with these elements, allegations of bullying can also lead to other criminal charges when linked to physical actions, which can lead to assault, battery, theft and robbery charges, just to name a few.

Getting schools and law enforcement on the same page

Because of their small pool of life experiences, most students don’t understand the fine line between noncriminal actions and criminal actions. As a result, a student might unknowingly commit a crime, thus leading to criminal charges and the need for legal counsel.

Because a young person’s life can be changed permanently by a criminal charge or conviction, it is important for school boards and law enforcement to be on the same page when it which actions will be handled solely by the school and when law enforcement intervention is necessary. It’s also important to get this information to students and parents alike because they are the ones who must handle the steep consequences if this line is crossed.

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