With the rise of get-tough juvenile crime policies across Texas, the municipal courthouse has become the new principal’s office for thousands of students who get in fights, curse their teachers or are generally “disorderly” on school campuses — even in elementary schools, according to data collected from school systems by Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit research and advocacy group focusing on social and economic justice.
Dallas ISD’s police department, for instance, issued criminal citations to 92 10-year-olds in the 2006-07 school year, the latest year for which such data is available. Alief ISD’s officers issued 163 tickets to elementary school students in 2007. And “several districts ticketed a 6-year-old at least once in the last five years,” according to a recent presentation to the state Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee by Texas Appleseed. Such tickets, often given for “disorderly conduct” or “classroom disruption,” typically are handled in municipal courts or by county justices of the peace and can have fines of between $250 to $500, police and court officials say, though some courts route many students into community service in lieu of fines.
The boom in ticket-writing over the last decade or more tracks with the boom in the creation of school district police departments, says Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s legal director. In 1989, only seven school districts in Texas had separate police agencies. Today, more than 160 departments are attached to districts, which Fowler and others attribute to a rising fear of juvenile crime that originated in the 1990s. The trend fits into what Texas Appleseed researchers and others view as a dangerous melding of education and criminal justice that too often and too early introduces children to the law enforcement arena, often a precursor to prison as an adult.
Texas Appleseed collected such data from 30 different school district police departments. In advance of a planned comprehensive report into the practice, the organization provided The Texas Tribune with data it collected on Houston ISD, Dallas ISD and Austin ISD, along with statistical snippets from other school districts. Houston ISD also provided more updated statistics at the request of the Tribune. Overall, the organization found that young students — often under 14 — are regularly ticketed and that the practice tends to disproportionately target minority students.
Also notable was Thevenot's report on a recent Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting focused on the subject:
IMO ticketing students for in-school disciplinary problems not only isn't the "final answer," it raises many more serious questions than it resolves.
At a Criminal Justice Committee hearing in late April, Sen. [John] Whitmire grilled officials from Aldine ISD about disciplinary practices in general and tickets in particular. Repeatedly, he pressed for answers on both the rationale for ticketing and the practical effect, injecting often that he felt the practice did little but haul low-income parents into courthouses for low-level student misbehavior and introduce kids to the criminal justice system prematurely.
“Can you tell me why you’d write a ticket," Whitmire asked, "instead of just ordering a kid to study hall, or to stay after school on a pretty day and write 1,000 times, ‘The world isn’t big enough for filthy minds?” as a teacher of the senator’s apparently once did.
The question was directed to Aldine’s Ken Knippel, assistant superintendent for safe and secure schools, who replied to similar queries that the number of tickets the district wrote was declining and conceded that ticket-writing “was not a solution” but sometimes an appropriate “consequence for the behavior.”
Such answers didn’t seem to placate Whitmire and some of his colleagues on the committee.
“Do you think the ticket stops the behavior?” Whitmire asked.
“No,” Knippel answered.
“They why do it?”
“I’m not suggesting that tickets are going to be the final answer,” Knippel said.