Turning Off the Spigot

Texas has changed its tune on turning kids into criminals, but Fort Worth may be lagging behind.
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Posted January 16, 2013 by ERIC GRIFFEY in News

In 2007, then-Speaker of the House Tom Craddick called Madden into his office and offered  the House veteran the chairmanship of the Corrections Committee.

Tatum: “Clearly those inside the public school system do not understand the impact [expeling students] has on our kids and our community.” Lee Chastain

Tatum: “Clearly those inside the public school system do not understand the impact [expeling students] has on our kids and our community.” Lee Chastain

“I told the speaker it would be an honor,” Madden said during a phone interview on his last day in office, “and under my breath I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ ”

Then, Madden said, he asked the most important question he’s ever put to anyone: “What do you want me to do?”

“He said, ‘Don’t build any prisons because they cost too much,’ ” the West Point grad recalled. “I can’t build prisons, and I can’t shoehorn [prisoners] in [to existing, overcrowded prisons], so I was left with two choices: I could open the door and let them go quicker, or slow them down from coming in,” he said. “And that was the pretty obvious answer for Texas.”

Madden and Whitmire, of Houston, went to work forming a bipartisan think tank and drafted legislation to undo some of the damage caused by Chapter 37.

Among the think tank members was Levin, who also leads the conservative group Right on Crime. Levin said that one of the group’s priorities in helping draft the legislation was to decriminalize normal disruptive behavior.

“We got legislation passed in 2007 that said schools couldn’t make up their own crimes,” he said. “They were issuing tickets for chewing gum. They were basically designating anything in their code of conduct as a criminal offense. And we made them stop doing that.”

Other legislation halted the practice of giving criminal citations to students in sixth grade and below, required schools that filed truancy complaints to show what they’d done to get the kid to come to school, and ended truancy charges for kids who voluntarily return to class.

Levin’s research found that suspensions sink the kids academically. Such students are typically already behind, and most are further behind by the time their suspensions end.

He also looked at the citations that were being doled out like Halloween candy. Most were for disrupting class, which is the most vague of all the discretionary offenses.

“One of the offenses is making unreasonable noise,” he said. “I always told people, ‘I made unreasonable noise every day when I was a kid.’ ”

In the three years after the first of the reform initiatives passed, Texas’ prison population, which is still the nation’s largest, fell significantly. The population is currently at its lowest point in five years, at 152,000 inmates. States such as Ohio and South Carolina have followed Texas example, passing similarly progressive laws.

Though Levin and Madden disagree, some observers believe that the new level of support for crime prevention championed by Right on Crime represents a shift in conservative thinking.

State Rep. Lon Burnam said he thinks the Republicans have changed their attitudes toward crime prevention. But he remains skeptical of their dedication to the issue.

“We see a philosophic shift from what we saw all during the 1990s, and that’s good,” the Fort Worth Democrat said. “It’s not for any reason other than a pragmatic recognition that what we’re doing isn’t cost-effective. It’s expensive. It’s not about compassion — it’s about a fiscally conservative approach.”

Levin believes that the legislation is an application of conservative principles, not a departure from them. “I don’t think it’s touchy-feely,” he said.

Madden said he and other conservative lawmakers were acting out of common sense, not party politics.

“It’s a realization that when we do things that are smart, we get better results,” he said. “We want a safe public and we want to make better use of our tax dollars. Is a better idea to be safer and spend less money? The answer is yes. It’s yes to a Republican, it’s yes to a Democrat, it’s yes to a liberal, it’s yes to a conservative.”

Levin believes school administrators should still have the option of removing students from class in extreme cases.

“There are certainly occasions when students are a danger to other students or staff,” he said. “Then it’s appropriate to remove them. But we’ve gone way too far with issuing criminal citations for minor misbehavior and removing too many students.”

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10 Comments


  1.  
    pete

    Great article Eric! It is good to see that investigative journalism isn’t dead yet (CNN not withstanding.)




  2.  
    pete

    oh yeah, FW Weekly, your IT guy needs to fix your captcha. it is impossible to notice




  3.  
    On the Inside

    Griffith, Tatum, Palazzol and Duran are SPOT ON! As any teacher can tell you, the biggest problem with Fort Worth ISD is it’s School Board. What is their average age anyway? Led by Judy Needham, Sims, Moss, Robbins, and Sutherland are dinosaurs – completely ineffective and out of touch. Needham controls the Board through campaign contributions (just ask Vasquez) and outright corruption. Whether getting jobs for family members, protecting political cronies or covering up countless whistle blower complaints, they are not there for kids – with the possible exception of Martinez – the only one with children in our schools. Many of us hope that Jackson and Needham will be exposed at the Palazzolo trial. When they ask us for a tax increase this year, parents and taxpayers would do well to remember that the legal fees in the Palazzolo case alone are currently close to $750,000.00 with no end in sight. And where is Dansby? NO WHERE TO BE FOUND. Absolutely nothing has changed. Who suffers? Our Children thats who! Board elections are fast approaching. Sims, Robbins, Vasquez, and Rangel are all up for re-election. Time to ask: what have they done for kids? The answer is: NOTHING! Time to wipe the slate clean. Why in the world is the Palazzolo case continuing? Because it intimidates every teacher or employee who is even thinking of reporting wrongdoing. We can only hope and pray the Commissioner will come into FWISD as he did in El Paso.




  4.  
    Jake

    Zero tolerance takes thought out of the equation and should never be used.

    As for racial disparity in the juvenile system, that just shows who are the problem kids are from a racial perspective.

    It all comes down to parenting. The parents that don’t care, have children that are disruptive and fail continually. I don’t want those kind of kids disrupting class for those that are trying to learn. Some parents just make a big fuss to get what they want, and that is wrong. Kids that fail should not be socially promoted, and if disruptive, should be sent to alternative school.

    Parent involvement should be required at all grades. Lets make laws that require parents to attend conferences with teachers; that would solve many problems with students.




  5.  
    Fairness and Equality

    Jake makes a good point but I wonder if he realizes that it is not a level playing field. It seems that if people are paying into a system, they should get services like everyone else. Make no mistake, Hispanics do pay for public education through property taxes just like everyone else (even renters pay as landlords figure it into rental rates). It’s obvious though that FWISD’s institutionalized racism puts Hispanic students and parents at a disadvantage— even more than African-Americans who are overly represented in positions of power even in schools and programs that were once predominately African-American but now have 50% and over Hispanic student populations. “Newcomer” Mexican families only know the system in Mexico where parents are not encouraged to be partners in their child’s education but rather to entrust their children to the school system. FWISD takes advantage of that orientation and does not invite parents to participate by limiting the hiring of Hispanic, bilingual personnel. One must still applaud Hispanic families for the strides being made in spite of the obstacles being put up by the very institution that they are paying for. Where are the Hispanic advocates on the Board? Ducking for cover after the Mario Perez indictment, I’m sure. Move over and let others who have the community’s interest in mind, take your place.




  6.  
    Stephen J

    We need a new board!




  7.  
    Need is needed

    This district is riddled with problems but they start at the top not the bottom. The board is ineffective as far as the students and employees of the FWISD are concerned. This board is too concerned and distracted with personal business. It is obvious to all who have had any contact with this board they are self serving and adept at taking care of them selves and their friends first. Heaven forbid you get cross ways with any board members! They will do their best to ruin your career and life. Funny with all the emphasis against “bullying” these days and the biggest offenders are on the board! The FWISD is like Chicago during the 20’s and 30’s! The board members are like gangsters having their way through intimidation! It’s just pathetic! They’re all old and out of touch with reality. All you have to do is watch any of the recorded board sessions on the FWISD website to see this! Half the time they don’t even know what issues are being discussed. This district will never heal until we “clean house” starting at the top and replace them with people who really care about our children first and have some integrity to do what’s right. Thank God elections are coming up soon!





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