Assaults on teachers and law enforcement officers will bring harsher criminal penalties than assault generally does if bills approved in the Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee Tuesday become law.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens would punish third degree assault on “an employee of the Department of Education," while at work, with up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Otherwise the maximum penalty for third degree assault is five years in prison and $5,000.
St. Croix Police Chief James Parris and Special Assistant to the Police Commissioner Thomas Hannah both testified in support of the bill.
"There isn’t much to say about this … other than, at last the school monitors, teachers, principals and others employed in our schools are gaining some relief," Hannah said. "As recent as the closing of school this year, we had a monitor that was attacked and injured. Why? Because a parent was told she couldn’t just walk into the school without signing in," Hannah said.
Several senators, including Sen. Judi Buckley, expressed some concern that the bill applied to anyone working for the Education Department, in any capacity, whether or not they are in a school. Buckley supported the bill in committee but said she will not vote for final passage unless it is amended to limit it to schools.
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly said she could support penalizing people who come into schools to cause trouble but was concerned about subjecting troubled teenage students to felony convictions.
"You are giving a career-ending, life-crushing barrier to employment," O’Reilly said. "I don’t believe that subjecting our students to felony charges benefits any of us," she said.
Gittens said he agreed and that an amendment to exclude students from these particular enhanced penalties was being prepared.
Sen. Tregenza Roach said he supported the goal of the bill but felt it should remain in committee for amendment rather than being sent on with hopes of later amendment.
Voting to send the bill out of committee and on to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration and amendment were Gittens, O’Reilly, Sens. Craig Barshinger, Judi Buckley, Clarence Payne and Sammuel Sanes. Roach and Hansen voted nay.
Another bill sponsored by Gittens enacts those same enhanced penalties for third degree assault on a law enforcement officer, if the assault is committed with a weapon of any kind.
Hannah and Parris both testified in support of the bill but recommended some amendments, including deleting the reference to a weapon.
"It is important to look at an assault of a peace officer separately. Some might say, ‘Well there is no distinction.’ We say yes there is a distinction: you as an average citizen are not attacked for doing your job and a peace officer is attacked by the very nature of his job," Hannah said.
Both Parris and Hannah recounted personal experiences as V.I. police officers where they themselves were assaulted and fairly seriously injured by unarmed individuals.
"I wear glasses today because of an assault," Hannah said, describing how an assailant hit him, chipping a bone off his ocular orbit.
"I got hit hard, breaking my nose, splitting my lip, smashing my face," Parris said. "At the time, we were only able to charge him with third degree assault. He made bail and left the territory the very next day," he said.
The bill was sent on to the Rules Committee unanimously.
The committee also heard testimony on two bills from Sanes. One bill defines sexual conduct and changes the definition of sexual contact, making it explicit and clear, and stating that the definition applies "whether between persons of the same or opposite sex."
The other bill, which gets rid of existing passages in the law defining types of sexual assault that specifically exempt spouses, is discussed separately in today’s Source. (See "Hansen Outrages Other Senators with Rape Bill Comments.”)