Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It's time we stop criminalizing school discipline

Texas Appleseed, a public interest organization whose mission is to promote social and economic justice for Texans, recently released a report detailing the criminalization of discipline in our public schools. The report, entitled Texas' School to Prison Pipeline:Ticketing, Arrest & Use of Force in Schools, takes a critical look at how Texas school districts have shifted disciplinary problems from the schools to the courthouses.
Described by Texas’ premier juvenile law scholar as “the shadow juvenile justice system,” municipal and justice courts are now the primary venue for many types of cases that historically were adjudicated as civil matters by juvenile courts. However, unlike juvenile courts, municipal and justice courts are courts of criminal jurisdiction. As harsh as it may seem, children convicted in these courts are aptly labeled “common criminals.” -- Passing the Paddle: Nondisclosure of Children's Criminal Cases
Estimates are that there are some 275,000 non-traffic citations issued to juveniles in Texas every year. Since many Justice of the Peace Courts don't report all of their juvenile matters, that estimate understates the number of teens ticketed by police. According to Texas Appleseed, the vast majority of those citations are issued for school disciplinary problems: disrupting class, disorderly conduct, fighting, truancy and misbehaving on the school bus.
In Texas, students as young as six have been ticketed at school in the past five years, and it is not uncommon for elementary-school students to be ticketed by school-based law enforcement. School-based arrest of students is not as common, but does occur—and often without prior notice to parents or a lawyer being present during initial questioning of the student. -- Texas Appleseed report

It's a basic tenet of criminal law that one must have the intent to commit a bad act in order to be guilty. While there are some exceptions (notably, DWI), the Texas Penal Code lists a culpable mental state for each criminal offense. Those mental states run from criminally negligent to reckless to knowing to intentional. 

Young children act up. It's part of the process of growing up. But young children rarely consider the consequences of their actions -- their minds aren't developed enough to do so. And you certainly can't compare the average six or seven year-old to the "reasonably prudent man" we studied about in law school.

According to Texas Appleseed, ticketing students for disciplinary matters has the following financial and legal consequences:
The most common misdemeanors for which students are ticketed in Texas public schools are non-violent Disruption of Class or Transportation, Disorderly Conduct, and curfew violations (leaving campus without permission)—however, unlike juvenile court, children convicted or entering “guilty or no contest” pleas in municipal and justice courts have criminal records.
Legislation (SB 1056) adopted by the 81st Texas Legislature in 2009 mandated criminal courts (including municipal and justice courts) immediately issue a nondisclosure order upon the conviction of a child for a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine only, however due to the large volume of these cases and the burden on courts to clear Class C tickets through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the “non-disclosure law” is not working—and Class C misdemeanors are staying on a youth’s “criminal record” accessible by future employers and others.
Students who fail to pay a court-imposed fine or complete court-imposed community service in the wake of a Class C ticket issued at school can be arrested at age 17—and incidents of this happening in Hidalgo County are currently being challenged in court.
The courts providing information for this study reported assessing fines and court costs for Class C tickets ranging from less than $60 to more than $500—and many students receive multiple tickets in a single school year.

Minority, particularly African-American, students and special education students find themselves disproportionately ticketed compared to their rates of enrollment.

Texas Appleseed recommends that Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code be amended to remove Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as criminal offenses. They also recommend that Chapter 37 be amended to prohibit the ticketing of students under the age of 14. The groups also recommends that truancy no longer be a criminal offense.

We should be doing everything we can to keep young people out of the criminal (in)justice system. Parents need to be informed of the school district's policies regarding the ticketing of students for disciplinary issues. Parents should be warned of the consequences involved in ticketing students.

Maybe it's time we stopped focusing so much on teaching to a standardized test so that schools can get back into the discipline game instead of farming it out to the police.

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