There are plenty of examples in Texas of some poor middle schooler getting a ticket for chewing gum at school, or nodding off in class, or wearing too much perfume, or something similarly outrageous. But to those pushing to reform the way school discipline is meted out in the state, the real tragedy is the routine nature of the punishment, with tens of thousands of students charged with misdemeanors each year.
Those advocates scored a significant victory in the last legislative session. As the Texas Tribune details this morning, the state is stripping school police officers of their ticket books.
The change is less dramatic than it sounds, more a procedural tweak than a fundamental rethinking of school discipline. Students can still be charged with misdemeanors for routine misbehavior, it's just that officers will now have to file a complaint with a local prosecutor, who will have the final say on whether to proceed with a case.
It also doesn't touch truancy cases, which make up roughly a third of the 113,000 of the class C misdemeanor citations handed to 12-17 year olds in Texas each year. Those are already handled through the complaint process.
Still, says Deborah Fowler with the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Appleseed, the new law marks a clear step in the right direction.
"What's good about taking way the ticket book is, there are a lot of situations when a police officer or a teacher [who calls the police officer] may be acting in the moment out of intense frustration with a student who is admittedly exhibiting challenging behavior."
Now there will be a cooling-off period in which to weigh whether the behavior was criminal.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Dallas ISD, where Police Chief Craig Miller has focused on reducing the number of tickets handed out by his officers, is already ahead of the curve. According to district statistics, the number of citations given to students has dropped by more than 75 percent, from 4,625 in 2006-07 to 1,062 in 2012-13.
Fowler and Texas Appleseed would like more districts to follow Miller's example. More than that, though, they are pushing for a more thorough decriminalization of routine misbehavior in schools. Even if the new law cuts citations by half -- an amount Fowler says is almost certainly an overestimate -- "we're still going to be off the charts" in comparison to other states.
Perhaps Texas Appleseed's ongoing federal lawsuit over Dallas County school districts' truancy policies might inspire a more dramatic change.