Texas Lawmakers Decriminalized Bad Behavior in Schools, and Citations Have Plummeted

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There was a time, not long ago, when police routinely issued tickets to Texas middle and high school students for chewing gum, wearing skirts a little too short and turning their desktops into pillows. Students who swore were ticketed for disorderly conduct. An 11-year-old Galveston boy even faced criminal assault charges for defending himself against a bully, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

It was in response to this two years ago that state lawmakers set out to dismantle the "zero-tolerance" policies that were sending so many kids home from school and into the criminal justice system, for acts as minor as talking back.

Most of the testimony in the ensuing committee hearings focused on what seemed to be a racial disparity in discipline in schools. "We clearly have a problem here," Royce West, the state senator from southern Dallas, told the Statesman, "the same pattern that has existed for decades. For eight out of 10 African-American students, this is a route into the criminal justice system."

Late last year, two laws were implemented that redefined what students could get ticketed for. Students could no longer be ticketed for Class C misdemeanors, which can carry up to a $500 fine, for "disruptions on school buses or in classrooms, who trespassed, or who possessed drugs or alcohol on school grounds," according to the Texas Tribune.

And it's worked. Since the laws were implemented, the number of tickets written by school police officers has dropped 71 percent, according to the Tribune.

That drop will have a big impact on kids' futures, experts say. Research has shown that even one court visit for a youth can lead to more problems down the road, Deborah Fowler, the deputy director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based, youth-advocacy organization, told Unfair Park on Tuesday. Craig Miller, the chief of the Dallas Independent School District's police force, told us that unfairly exposing students to the criminal justice system has lasting consequences.

Now, Fowler says, the laws are doing exactly what they were intended to do: keeping kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system. She attended a senate committee hearing Tuesday that included testimony about the laws' effectiveness, and she came away pleased.

Miller said the jury's still out on what the dramatic decline in tickets written means. Next year, with another year's worth of data, Dallas ISD will know more about the law's effectiveness, he told Unfair Park.

Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.

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