Senate approves bill to limit ticketing youth

April 4, 2013, 8:54 pm

By MICHAEL BRICK

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Faced with a documented pattern of teenagers pushed into the criminal justice system for acting out in class, Texas lawmakers on Thursday advanced a measure to start decriminalizing youthful misbehavior.

The Senate unanimously approved a bill that would limit the practice of issuing tickets for minor classroom offenses. The measure, which still must clear the House, would replace misdemeanor citations with counseling referrals and punishments such as community service performed on the school grounds.

"When you have these tickets, you end up having the kids caught up in the system for little violations that should be taken care of in the school," Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat who wrote the bill, told The Associated Press. "When they go to jail, it becomes a badge of honor as opposed to something that scares them straight."

For several years, civil rights groups have sought to dismantle a system they call the "school-to-prison pipeline." In a prominent case last month, federal prosecutors signed a consent decree governing the disciplinary practices of a school district in Mississippi.

In Texas, one study has shown that 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to juveniles every year. Others have shown that black and Latino students are more frequently suspended, expelled and charged with misdemeanors for classroom misbehavior, such as using profanity or making obscene gestures.

Legislative committee hearing witnesses have told lawmakers about incidents in which students have been arrested in class for unpaid tickets.

A panel of judges recommended the changes. Support came from civil rights groups and from conservatives swayed by potential cost savings.

"We are thrilled," said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a civil rights group. "Texas' use of ticketing to address school discipline issues increases the likelihood of future juvenile justice involvement, at great expense to taxpayers and to students saddled with the long-term collateral consequences."

While the state education commissioner, Michael Williams, has endorsed the discipline reform movement, other legislative efforts to decriminalize school discipline have met resistance.

In the Senate Criminal Justice Committee this week, Chairman John Whitmire was met with significant opposition for a proposal that would similarly decriminalize truancy. Under current law, students and their parents can be fined for failure to attend school.

Administrators from Pearland, Frisco and other wealthy suburban districts called the proposal unnecessary. They said most cases are dismissed before creating a criminal record.

Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, said the problem was more severe in urban districts such as his own, where "they're literally handcuffing the high school students and taking them to the Harris County Jail based on truancy."

For administrators, whose job performances are measured in part by attendance statistics, the criminal sanctions provide a valued weapon in the campaign against truancy.

"The No. 1 priority is to get those kids in school, get them educated," Clark Lowery, an assistant principal at San Jacinto Junior High in Midland, told the committee. He urged lawmakers to keep the fines in place.

While the truancy bill remained pending in committee, reform advocates said the vote for the classroom discipline bill marked a significant step toward breaking the school-to-prison cycle.

"So many of these students have other issues going on in their lives, whether they involve undiagnosed mental illness, unaddressed trauma, learning disorders or family issues," said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer on criminal justice at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Deitch, who also serves on the board of the Barbara Jordan Freedom Foundation, which supports discipline reform, added that the bill "will go a long way toward getting children who misbehave in school the services they need."

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