State Rep. Giddings Wants School Districts to Stop Treating Students Like Criminals

A couple of weeks back Texas Appleseed and ACLU of Texas reps were down in Austin asking why oh why do state school districts feel the need to write class C misdemeanor tickets to students, some as young as 6, in the case of the Dallas Independent School District back in '06-'07. John Whitmire's SB 1116 seeks to curb the practicing of writing students tickets, especially during class; so too does state Rep. Helen Giddings's HB 3758, which says "a peace officer may not require a student who is younger than 12 years of age to sign a citation issued to the student on school property during regular school hours."

Giddings's proposed legislation heads to the House Public Education Committee next week. And in advance of that, she sends a missive explaining the need for such legislation. The Dallas Democrat's op-ed titled "Breaking the Handcuffs on Texas Children," which was sent by her office, follows in full.

Breaking the Handcuffs on Texas Children

By Texas State Rep. Helen Giddings

Imagine a child as young as six years old arrested for disrupting class. It seems like an unlikely scenario, but it is happening in Texas classrooms and these are not just for extreme, violent circumstances. Most arrests are for non-violent disorderly conduct offenses.

The number of Texas children receiving Class C misdemeanors is alarming. According to Texas Appleseed data, in just 26 districts 31,850 students received Class C misdemeanor tickets from 2006-07. By now many have heard of the 12-year old special needs student in Austin, ticketed for disrupting class for applying perfume after her peers told her "she stank." In addition, data suggests that vulnerable groups like special needs children are being unfairly overrepresented in ticketing. African Americans, and to some degree Hispanics are also disproportionately represented in ticketing and arrests. With some districts reporting African Americans receiving double the percentage of tickets compared to their representation in the total student body. I agree with Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson who said, "More than 80 percent of adult prison inmates are school dropouts. Charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavioral issues exacerbates the problem."

In large part, gone are the days when children were sent to the principal for behaviors such as using profanity in class. Today, the courthouse has become the alternative for Texas students who misbehave in school. This early exposure to the criminal court system can have lasting negative effects on young children and they may develop an unhealthy fear of police. Those who enter guilty pleas in municipal and juvenile justice courts end up having criminal records. In those instances when charged, their parents end up paying from $60 to $500 in fines. In the case of multiple citations the costs can be even higher. Another unfortunate fact is that Class C tickets are not handled in juvenile court and students as young as five years of age are not afforded the same protections of the juvenile civil court system. As many understand if you are not able to afford your own attorney in a criminal proceeding an attorney will be appointed for you. However, this is not the case for the children in juvenile criminal proceedings. Parents are incurring additional costs to defend their children. These offenses are also expending resources and taxing the criminal justice system. In a time with limited resources and budget cuts, the state should not be exhausting time and money. The state's resources could be better spent on adequately funding education.

The result of this increased rate of ticketing and arrests of students for non-violent, non-sexual and non-harassing behavior is creating a pathway to prisons for these children. Disruption of class and disrespect of teachers and students is inappropriate behavior and should not be tolerated in Texas schools. However, not tolerating this behavior, does not mean we should criminalize our children.

Children should be reprimanded for bad behavior and schools should be armed with the tools to do so. So if we eliminate the option to criminally charge children, what is the solution? Schools should first rely on their student code of conduct for small disruptions, such as using profanity in class. For more serious offenses alternative disciplinary schools could be an option. One of the most effective tools would be positive behavioral support programs, which have been shown to reduce disciplinary problems. Additionally, police officers are not necessarily trained to focus on the child and their educational development, but rather on law enforcement. There is a need for police officers in schools to apply educational philosophy with law enforcement ethos, so that behavioral issues in schools are more appropriately addressed. Special training for school police officers should be required that would train them to differentiate between behavior that is characteristically immature for a particular age group versus behavior that warrants law enforcement response. Training school police officers about child behavior and de-escalation techniques, peer mediation and school-based alternatives should be considered as part of the solution for more serious offenses. As a last resort when Class C misdemeanors are given, amounts above the administrative court fee should be returned to the schools to set up mediation and anger management programs to help children with severe behavioral issues.

House Bill 3758 which is being heard in the house public education committee on Tuesday will prohibit the issuance of certain Class C misdemeanor citations to children who are twelve years old or younger. Children 12 and younger, whose behavior is non-violent, non-sexual and not harassing should be dealt with in schools with behavior modification and not in the criminal justice system. We must find a way for zero tolerance to meet with common sense for the sake of Texas children.