Chewing gum in class or talking back to your teacher might seem like the kind of thing that would get your knuckles cracked or perhaps draw a stint in detention. But for hundreds of thousands of Texas middle school and high school students in recent years, those infractions could have earned them a Class C misdemeanor ticket from school police officers.
Those tickets involve a trip to a court of law, a fine of up to $500, and a permanent mark in their criminal records. And those kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the fine became subject to arrest when they turned 17.
That all changed at the beginning of this school year when a new law authored by State Senator Royce West of Dallas put a stop to the practice across the state for school kids between the ages of 12 through 17. The new law has made some people happy but left others frustrated because they perceive that a vital tool has been removed from campus police officers’ toolboxes.
“It wasn’t this way at all when I went to public school,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public-interest law center that promotes social and economic justice. “We’d already worked on the issue of the school-to-prison pipeline and found that 80 percent of all adults in Texas prisons are high school dropouts. But when we began to look at the issue of ticketing students for disorderly conduct and disrespect, well, I think everyone here was surprised at the numbers that were being given out.”
That number often hit 300,000 annually, with about one-third due to truancy, which still earns a ticket under the new law. But the rest were being given for what amounted to classroom antics. Some school districts used ticketing sparingly — the Brownsville school district gave out fewer than a dozen last year — while others passed them out by the hundreds every school year.
“To us at Texas Appleseed, the change in the law puts the issue of discipline back in the hands of teachers and school administrators, where it belongs, rather than making every little thing a criminal offense,” Fowler said.
Under the new law, schools may design a series of graduated steps for those responsible for school disruptions, with the campus police officers still having the right to make a recommendation to the county courts that the student be charged with a misdemeanor once those steps have been exhausted. At that point, it is up to prosecutors to decide whether to press charges. Steps at some schools include counseling, writing papers, after-school detention, and parents being brought in with their kids to discuss the issues.
“Some people have said that they think the police are being handcuffed by the new law,” said Matthew Simpson, policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas. “But from the ACLU’s point of view — and we’ve spent a lot of time looking at the issue — it’s clear-cut: Either something is minor enough to be handled as a school matter or criminal enough to be handled as a criminal matter. If something is that serious, treat it as a criminal matter. The other things should be handled by the school.”
Texas school officials not only ticketed students more than any other state, Simpson said, but they used the tickets disproportionately against African-Americans. “It simply isn’t good policy to have kids deal with the police and get involved in the court system,” he said, “but the fact was that Texas schools were handing off discipline to law enforcement.”
Rev. Kyev Tatum, president of the Fort Worth Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a civil rights activist who works with at-risk students, agrees. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “This was a revenue tool, and it needed to be stopped. We are talking about putting undue financial pressure on parents who can least afford it while at the same time criminalizing our children. You cannot criminalize children in the educational environment and then expect them to learn.”
The revenue from the tickets was often split between the courts and the school districts.
Tatum, like Fowler, sees a direct connection between indiscriminate use of tickets and future trouble for those children. “The kid who has gotten tickets is seen as a troublemaker,” Tatum said, “and you know what that means later in life: He or she will be treated like a criminal.”
Tatum, who worked on the issue for two years with the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities in Austin, said that while African-Americans were over-ticketed compared to other races, the practice was so widespread in Texas that more than 30 percent of white students were ticketed as well.
“We’re talking about this affecting everyone,” he said. “Some of those school officers were like Barney Fife with a .357 Magnum, just shooting into the wind. I mean, you are talking about a kid being ticketed for rolling his eyes at a teacher in some cases or snapping their gum before they got rid of it.”
Mani Nezami, a lawyer with Texas Southern University’s Juvenile Justice Project has a file of cases that make Tatum’s point. “We had a case of a girl who was bullied at school because the other kids said she smelled bad,” she said. “So she came into school wearing some of her mother’s perfume and then got ticketed for disrupting the class” because of the strong fragrance. “Another girl was bullied over a long period of time and reported it to the school. Her parents talked with the school, and nothing was done. So one day she fought back, only to get ticketed for that.”
If the students and their families don’t have the resources or knowledge, unexpunged tickets can follow a student for life. “Someone in our office knew of someone accepted to a position of White House intern who lost that position because of a couple of tickets,” Nezami said. “It can affect what college you get into, potential military career — it’s just devastating to send kids to court.”
It’s too early for statistics on how the revamped law is working, but Fowler and Simpson both said there is strong anecdotal evidence of a dramatic drop in Class C misdemeanors finally ending up in court.
But not everyone feels the same way. Crowley Police Department’s Sgt. S.C. Neal, who oversees campus officers in the Crowley district, said that not being allowed to ticket disruptive students leaves him and his officers effectively out of the discipline process. “Class Cs can stop a child in the early stages of misbehavior and lead them to move to a positive direction,” he said. “So my feeling is that we ought to have some discretion with tickets.”
He said that some teachers have said they feel unsafe because of the new law. “And that has hindered us,” he continued. “You have a kid in class who stands up and disrupts the learning environment, using profanity … . The teacher calls me, and I take the kid out of class, and he’s telling me where to go — that’s a gross disruption and something I would have given a ticket for. And without the threat of the ticket, some kids realize there’s no real repercussion for their behavior and so they can act out in a bigger way. We just wind up sending them home — which is what they were after all along.”
Tatum sees it differently. “We need to be raising kids to have pride in themselves, not to think of themselves as criminals — unless we’re looking to create a criminal class.”