The column closes: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 nonviolent 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 to 2007. 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 unfairly overrepresented in ticketing. African-Americans, and to some degree Hispanics, are also disproportionately represented in ticketing and arrests. Some districts reported African-Americans received 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."
Gone are the days when children were sent to the principal for behavior 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, who 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 can pay from $60 to $500 in fines. In the case of multiple citations, the costs can be even higher. As many understand, if an adult is not able to afford an attorney in a criminal proceeding, an attorney will be appointed. This is not the case, however, for 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 of limited resources and budget cuts, the state should not be wasting time and money. The state's resources could be better spent on adequately funding education.
House Bill 3758, which is being heard in the House Public Education Committee today [ed. note: yesterday, April 19], will prohibit the issuance of certain Class C misdemeanor citations to children who are 12 years old or younger. Children 12 and younger, whose behavior is nonviolent, nonsexual and nonharassing, 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.That makes plenty of sense. Hell, children under 10 can't even be charged with crimes, so I've never understood giving them tickets. And up to 12 years old, it's likely that giving tickets which can only be paid by parents fails to punish the child and needlessly burdens families who may already be struggling with discipline problems. Anybody who's ever raised kids know things don't always go perfectly and when kids are struggling with behavior in school it's often the case that parents are struggling with the same issues at home. Tacking on financial penalties as a first-step response in most cases only compounds the problem.
On the senate side, Sen. John Whtimire has separate legislation to scale back ticketing, SB 1116, which has been placed on the Senate Intent Calendar in preparation for a floor vote. (He had an op ed on the subject earlier this spring.) Whitmire also had two bills up in committee this week related to school discipline: SB 205 which would require school harassment policies to specifically address bullying and cyberbullying, and SB 1117, which would raise the standard of culpability required to convict parents of "contributing to non-attendance" of their children at schools.
SB 205 takes on the hot button issue of bullying without forcing it through the criminal justice apparatus. The bill analysis explicitly declares that, "Texas has sufficient tools for prosecutors to pursue penal code violations, when these events rise to that level. What is lacking is a concentrated and consistent effort within our school districts to develop policies that address these events utilizing evidence-based practices." While I know that requiring additional policies at schools over the years is one of the things that contributes to bureaucratic bloat, I certainly appreciate Sen. Whitmire seeking non-criminal justice solutions to behavior problems that often can and should be handled in-school.
Whitmire's SB 1117 is a much-needed bill addressing when parents can be ticketed for their kids cutting class. According to the bill analysis, "there were 65,521 cases filed for parents contributing to nonattendance in the municipal and justice of the peace courts of the state. For every case there is a fine not to exceed $500." Whitmire's bill keeps the crime on the books, but requires the court to assess parents' intent. Again from the bill analysis: "Currently, the level of culpability is that the parent has acted 'with criminal negligence.' S.B. 1117 amends the Education Code by raising the level of culpability such that the parent must have acted 'intentionally' in order to ensure that those receiving this penalty not only know their children are not attending school but that the parent is also influencing or causing the absences."
I find it amazing that Texas law enforcement issued 65,000+ Class C tickets last year for nonattendance at school when IMO the fault lies with schools failing to provide a product that young people value. I can think of no other business or area of government where dissatisfied customers can be arrested or fined to force them to consume services they don't want. But instead of improving schools so youth might want to go there, Texas' response to nonattendance is to criminalize students who vote with their feet and their parents who have little control over either the quality of schools nor their children's decision to play hooky. I have no way to judge the likelihood of these bills' passage, but I'm pulling for all of them.