With More Police Officers in Schools, Thousands of Texas Students Wind Up In Court Each Year

On Tuesday, Eric told you about a DISD sixth-grader who was arrested at his school, DISD's Learning Alternative Center for Empowering Youth, after attempting to steal $4 from a classmate. After his target felt the sixth-grader's hand in his pocket and pulled away, the frustrated would-be thief knocked him to the ground. The victim immediately tracked down two Dallas police officers working off-duty at the school and asked to press charges. The sixth-grader was arrested and taken to Dallas County's juvenile justice center, where he's being charged with robbery.

The incident started a furious debate in the comments section about police issuing criminal citations in schools. Over the past decade or so, this has become an increasingly common story in Texas schools, and, as The New York Times reports today, across the nation. Thousands of children each year face Class C misdemeanor charges for relatively minor disruptions, the paper writes, vaulting them into a legal process where they often face those charges without legal aid and with a chance of ending up with a lasting black mark on their records, as well as court fines and many hours of community service. (The ACLU has tracked a huge number of these cases nationwide, including the infamous example of Texas honor student Diane Tran, jailed for missing class. Tran was working two jobs to support herself and her siblings after her parents divorced and her mother left the state.)

And surprise surprise, these types of criminal charges appear to be most common in Texas: Students here are written more than 100,000 tickets each year.

That number comes from Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based legal advocacy center for juveniles. And Texas Appleseed has come to believe that the tickets are disproportionately issued in some districts to a certain kind of student: the non-white kind. In February, along with the Brazos County chapter of the NAACP, they filed a complaint with the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. It alleges that black students in Bryan are ticketed at four times the rate of white ones, and tells one of their stories:

Featured in the complaint is De'Angelo Rollins, who was 12 and had just started at a Bryan middle school in 2010 when he and another boy scuffled and were given citations. After repeated court appearances, De'Angelo pleaded no contest, paid a fine of $69 and was sentenced to 20 hours of community service and four months' probation.

"They said this will stay on his record unless we go back when he is 17 and get it expunged," said his mother, Marjorie Holmon.

In the wake of the Newtown murders, more and more school districts across the country are clamoring for cops in their schools to help prevent or deter crime. Yet here in Texas, we also seem to be ahead of the curve on understanding the potential negative consequences of aiming those officers at students and fast-tracking them into the criminal justice system.

As The Dallas Morning News wrote back in January, after years of citing students for things like cursing at a teacher, shoving another student or even dozing off in class, DISD decided to make a change. DISD police Chief Craig Miller asked officers to consider writing fewer citations and more warnings. In one year, the DMN found, the total number of tickets was cut almost in half, from 935 to 409. That's a nice improvement from the 2006-07 school year, when we ticketed nearly 100 10-year-old students.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan