Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Legislature takes critical look at citing students for misbehavior

While surfing on Google Reader this morning at the municipal courthouse, I came across a post over at Grits for Breakfast about the goings-on with the State Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The post mentioned discussions regarding the Driver Responsibility Program, deferred for DWI's, reducing the number of offenses that can lead to driver's license suspensions and a new look at using the criminal (in)justice system to discipline students who disrupt class.

I was particularly interested in this last item because I have a friend whose child has been dragged into the justice of the peace courts for allegedly disrupting class. She and I discussed the absurdity of charging children with a criminal offense because they interrupted class. It's bad enough that the students are missing class sitting in a courtroom; but the absurdity continues when the courts hold the parents liable for the fines and court costs owed by their children. My friend was told that if she didn't pay the fines and court costs for her son's case then her driver's license would be suspended for nonpayment of a court-ordered fine.

These are the recommendations of the committee regarding secondary school disciplinary laws:

1. Amend Chapter 37 of the Education code by narrowing the definition for "Disruptive Activities", "Disruption of Classes", "Serious and Persistent Misbehavior" to eliminate non-criminal acts.
2. Amend Chapter 37 of the Education Code by changing the dangerous or disruptive violation to dangerous and disruptive, In order to insure students are not being removed for simple disruptions to class.
3. Require TEA to evaluate and modify education standards at DAEPs and JJAEPs. 
4. Require TEA to notify school districts of disproportionate referrals.
5. Require TEA to develop a tracking system for the funds generated by citations. 
6. Require an evaluation of district with continued disproportionate referrals.
7. Require school district to implement some form of evidence based programs that are proven to reduce truancy, crime, and drug offenses.  
8. Require more training for teachers and administrators in discipline in a educational setting, and early intervention options.
9. Exempt 18-21 year olds from the truancy laws.
10. Require the state auditor to evaluate the use of dropout funds by TEA.

During hearings before State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) last April, Mr. Jeff Miller of Advocacy Incorporated testified about the disproportionate numbers of special needs students who get dragged into the criminal (in)justice system.

Jeff Miller, policy specialist, Advocacy Incorporated, testified in agreement of the statements and recommendations made by TA with regard to students with disabilities. Miller stated that while ten percent of students receive special education, they represent twenty-one percent of the students expelled in Texas. He stated that this overrepresentation was the result of systemic problems with assessment done by school districts, programming and accountability for implementation of special education students' Individualized Education Plans and Behavioral Improvement Plans. He also stated DAEPs are especially lacking in these areas.
Miller also testified to the topic of citation. He explained that often students with disabilities are disciplined and also cited; meaning they are directly involved with the justice system. Instead of criminalizing these students and removing them from schools for issues that are directly related to their disability, steps should be taken to develop plans to address the behavioral issues when they are not violent or criminal. The first step in accomplishing this is supplying teachers with needed help, and identifying students with special needs.

Ms. Elysha Aseltine, who wrote a dissertation on the ticketing of students also testified before the committee regarding the rampant increase in tickets issued for misbehavior.

Elyshia Aseltine, representing herself, testified regarding her dissertation on school ticketing. She testified that in 1994 only 1.5 percent of tickets were issued by school police officers. In 2007 40 percent of the ticket for juveniles were issues by school police officers. She stated that the majority of tickets were for curfew violations, typically for leaving campus during lunch. The next most frequent ticket is for disorderly conduct, and next abuse of language. Many citation are also given for drug paraphernalia and disruptive behavior. She also provided statistics pertaining to the number of juveniles who experienced increased penalties for citation as a result of school disciplinary. Approximately 14,200 ticket were issued over a fourteen year period issues; 2,119 resulted in a warrant being issued or the juvenile serving jail time.  

The president of the Texas Association of School District Police, Mr. Jeff Ward, denied that school districts encourage officers to issue citations as a way of raising funds. He did point out, however, that while a student could be cited for disrupting class, he could not be cited for carrying a knife to school.

Jeff Ward, president, Texas Association of School District Police, testified that revenue for citations was not a factor in issuing citations. He stated that only five dollars for every citation is returned to the district from the county in adjudicated cases. He stated that school police officers report to the police department or the superintendent of a school district; and that school administrators can not require that police issue a ticket. They can be the complaining witness if involved in the incident. He also stated there has been a reduction in the issuance of tickets. He also states that as a result of a change in law, possession of a knife on campuses is no longer a criminal offense therefore is no longer a citable [sic]offense. He also stated that officers are trained in crisis intervention and many have mental health training.  
The report also stated that the conflict resolution programs, such as peer mediation and school-based teen courts have proven to be effective alternatives to citing students.

In short, the committee realizes that what we're doing now isn't working and that we need to look at some fresh ideas when it comes to handing campus disciplinary issues. Removing those matters from the criminal (in)justice system is a healthy first step.

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