Texas Chief Justice: Stop ‘Over-Criminalizing’ Misbehaving Students

Texas needs to rethink how schools handle misbehaving students, according to Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson (R), who will push for reforms in his State of the Judiciary address on Wednesday. Jefferson, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry (R), is backing 3 Democrat-sponsored disciplinary bills:

Senate Bill 393 would end the practice of ticketing for students with disciplinary problems that are currently considered criminal misdemeanors, and replace it with a system of “progressive sanctions,” including warning letters, community service and referrals to counseling. SB 394 would expand confidentiality for youths who have had misdemeanors dismissed, to keep their records clean. SB 395 would allow juveniles convicted of certain nonviolent offenses to settle their court costs through community service, or have them waived if they are indigent. All three were authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Ticketing for nonviolent misdemeanors forces students to go to court, Jefferson told the Senate Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday. […] “What used to be, in our day, a trip to the principal’s office now lands you in court,” he said. “We’re overcriminalizing low-level, nonviolent offenses in the classroom … and then they’re on a path to our criminal justice system.”

The Chief Justice has been outspoken about the dire need for school disciplinary reform — with good reason. A whopping 60 percent of Texas junior high and high school students are either suspended or expelled, with nearly half ending up in the juvenile justice system. 97 percent of these disciplinary actions were because of a minor infraction, like a dress code violation or being late to class. Unsurprisingly, black, Latino, and special education students are much more likely to be disciplined. While the harsh punishments do not seem to deter bad behavior, most students hit with multiple disciplinary actions drop out of school.

More than 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to students as young as six years old every year, putting a misdemeanor charge on that student’s record. Usually, these tickets are issued for minor offenses; in one recent example, a 12-year-old girl received a ticket for wearing too much perfume. Another student, an 11-year-old boy, was charged with assault after hitting a bully with a notebook.

As Jefferson argues, these misdemeanor tickets introduce children into the school-to-prison pipeline early on. One-third of Texas youth in juvenile lock-down facilities have dropped out of school, while 80 percent of adult inmates in the state are school drop-outs.

The overuse of disciplinary action not only takes a toll on the students, but also on state resources. Texas spends $227 million a year on school discipline and $87 million on school security and campus policing. After the Newtown shooting, some Texas Republicans have pushed for even greater security, demanding an armed “marshal” be present in every public school. While there has been no conclusive evidence that armed guards make schools safer, they do guarantee that student arrests for minor infractions will skyrocket.