The sort of offenses that might land a student in the principal’s office in other states often send kids in Texas to court with misdemeanor charges. Some schools have started rethinking the way they punish students for bad behavior after watching many of them drop out or land in prison because of tough disciplinary policies.
In a downtown Houston municipal court, Judge David Fraga has presided over thousands of cases involving students “ticketed” by school police. His docket is still relatively small at the moment, with only 45 to 65 cases per night.
“I suspect probably when school is in full bloom, probably we’ll have between 125 [and] 150,” Fraga says.
He isn’t referring to cases involving adults ticketed for driving under the influence or suspended licenses, but rather young people ticketed by school police for fighting, disrupting class, or using profanity — all Class C misdemeanors. In other words, these infractions are the equivalent of crimes like insurance fraud and criminal mischief.
Erlin Zavala is making his second court appearance for skipping school. The gangly 13-year-old has jet black hair combed back with gel. He listens quietly to questions Fraga asks him, with his tired-looking mom at his side.
Fraga is a true believer in second chances. He won’t decide Erlin’s fate today, but he usually recommends community service just to keep kids’ mistakes from becoming part of their permanent record.
“I mean you gotta show these young people that there’s hope,” Fraga says.
Winding up in a courtroom for skipping school might seem a bit excessive, but beginning in the mid 1990s, most states adopted rigid, “zero tolerance” policies in response to school shootings and gang violence. Schools in Texas went further by ticketing things like truancy, tardiness, dress code violations and the use of profanity at school.
Deborah Fowler, legal director for Texas Appleseed, a public interest law firm, says schools “criminalized kids’ misdeeds, no matter how small.
• Nearly 6 in 10 public school students studied in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh- and 12th-grade school years.
• Of the nearly 1 million students studied, about 15 percent were assigned at least once to disciplinary alternative education programs between seventh and 12th grade; about 8 percent were placed at least once in juvenile justice alternative education programs.
• Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct for which state law mandates suspensions and expulsions; the remainder of disciplinary actions was made at the discretion of school officials, primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes.
• About 10 percent of students suspended or expelled between seventh and 12th grade dropped out, compared with just 2 percent of students with no disciplinary action.
• About 59 percent of those students disciplined 11 times or more did not graduate from high school during the study period.
— Beenish Ahmed
Source: Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University
“What we are seeing now are hundreds of thousands of Class C misdemeanor tickets being issued to juveniles in Texas [who are] being processed for those tickets through what is really an adult criminal justice court system,” she says.
This summer, an exhaustive study by the Council of State Governments found that by 12th grade, more than half of all 14- to 15-year-olds in Texas are ticketed, expelled or suspended at least once. After they’re ticketed, sent to court and fined hundreds of dollars, students aren’t always allowed to go back to their home school. Instead, they’re sent to an alternative school, a holding pen of sorts where kids are supposed to “learn their lesson.”