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

For all the change that the 2007 reforms have brought about statewide, some in Fort Worth say they’ve seen little improvement in local schools’ approach to discipline.

Griffin: “What remains of the problem is found in the management of the classroom.” Jeff Prince

Griffin: “What remains of the problem is found in the management of the classroom.” Jeff Prince

Former Arlington Heights assistant principal Joe Palazzolo, who blew the whistle on serious misconduct by administrators at that school, has been locked in a legal battle with the district for almost three years. He maintains that, at Arlington Heights, white students often went unpunished for disciplinary problems, while black and brown students were punished harshly.

“If they are white and privileged, they get a pass,” he said. “It didn’t matter what they did: drugs, fighting, cutting class, guns in their cars, it didn’t matter. Black and Hispanic kids, unless they were related to someone downtown — nobody cared.”

The message to minority students, he said, was that they mattered less than white students.

“What a child needs most is consistency,” he said. “They need to see that you’re going to treat them the way you treat everyone else. If you have a rule, and you want to enforce that rule, then you’re going to enforce that rule equitably to everyone or not at all. They’re not stupid.”

The Council of State Governments’ report in July 2011 looked at 800,000 students in Tarrant County. It found that more than half of all sixth-graders had been suspended from school at least once.

Researchers also found that minority students were disciplined or “ticketed” more than non-minorities. For example, the study found that 83 percent of African-American males and 74 percent of Hispanic males had at least one discretionary violation while only 59 percent of white males did.

The report also concluded that kids who are expelled have a higher rate of ending up in the juvenile corrections system and ultimately in the adult corrections system.

“There’s only so much the legislature can do,” Palazzolo said. “It’s up to the district to implement it.”

Raul Duran worked for the Fort Worth district for 18 years. He was a crime-prevention specialist whose job was to intervene when kids showed their first signs of veering off course.

There is a lot the district could be doing to prevent [students being kicked out of school],” he said.

He believes that the district’s unwillingness to engage Hispanic students and parents is the reason for the growing number of Hispanic students being kicked out of schools.

“I would say, ‘You need to be hiring people who are bilingual and culturally sensitive,’” he said. “The moment I [said] that, I got backlash and retaliation. I was eventually laid off after 18 years of doing the job. They get rid of you if you speak up.”

He said the district’s Tier One program exemplifies its failure to look out for the best interests of Hispanic students. Tier One schools were the campuses where first-time offenders against school rules were sent, those whose misbehavior didn’t warrant sending them to an alternative school. The district created three Tier One high schools and three middle schools. Three of the schools were in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, and the student population was mostly Hispanic.

“Of the intervention specialists and administrators who were hired for these three schools, not a single one was Hispanic, not a single one was bilingual,” he said. “To me, that’s a setup to be able to say, ‘We’ve got all of these programs, we’re doing all this stuff for at-risk kids.’ [But] when you look at it, none of these people could deal with the community they were supposed to be serving.

“I knew of at least two colleagues who were Hispanic who applied for those positions,” he said. “They didn’t even get interviewed.”

Randy Turner, chief juvenile probation officer at Tarrant County Juvenile Services, disagreed with Palazzolo and Duran. He said that he is seeing fewer students entering the justice system and believes that the legislative reforms are having a positive effect.

In the 2010-2011 school year, Turner said, the Fort Worth district sent 105 students to the DAEPs on mandatory referral and 66 on discretionary referral, compared to 125 mandatory referrals and 107 discretionary referrals three years earlier.

One of the reasons for improvement, he said, was that his department began to address the influx of special education students into the justice system.

“We were getting a very high percentage of kids who were being referred to us [who] had special education needs,” he said. “Our concern was we didn’t have the expertise the school system has for addressing those kids. We sat down with the Tarrant County advisory board, with representatives from all of the districts, and we talked about that issue.

“If there was an issue that we couldn’t address, we worked through that with the school district,” he said. “We made some great progress. We saw our percentages [of special education referrals] go down.”

Turner also acknowledged the disparity between minorities and white students who were passing through his department. He told Fort Worth Weekly that he will be speaking with Schools Superintendent Walter Dansby over the next few days to specifically address that issue.

“He and I have had conversations on  how we can better address the needs of minority kids,” he said. “We’re trying to call attention to the fact that those are the kids who are being sent to us. We’re trying to address that internally and hopefully get those kids back on track.”

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Clearly no one was thinking about sound bites when the Interagency Council for Addressing Disproportionality was created. But despite its bureaucratic mouthful of a name, the council is an important part of the 2011 reforms that Madden and Whitmire got passed, Tatum said.

The council keeps an eye on what districts are doing. It is also charged with making further recommendations to the legislature on how to mitigate some of the effects of poverty and crime on Texas’ public school students.

Joyce James, who leads the council, said its goal is to analyze the flaws in governmental systems that perpetuate latent and blatant racism.

“Our work really involves beginning to move away from what the conversation has usually been about, which is what is wrong with the person, to what is wrong with our system,” she said.

James hosts “Undoing Racism” workshops and events that reach out to community leaders. As a former head of Texas’ Child Protective Services, she required her administrators to go through the workshop. It was widely lauded by its participants as an eye-opening event.

The council looks at how systems and agencies interact and is tasked with examining the attitudes toward race in the Texas Education Agency, county-level juvenile justice systems, and mental health programs for children.

Tatum said that because of recent legislative changes and the work of programs like Interagency Council, the school-to-prison pipeline might be drying up.

“My main premise is that 90 percent of this can be solved with a shift in attitude,” he said.

Levin said success shouldn’t be measured “by how many laws we pass or how many people we put away in prison. We should be measured by what the results are: How many kids are staying in school and graduating and staying out of the criminal justice system?”


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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