Friday, December 15, 2017
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Sherea Vitelli

Experienced attorney in the areas of family law, criminal defense, civil litigation, estate administration, and D.W.I.

Let's take the cuffs off Texas kids

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.

This increased rate of ticketing and arrests of students for nonviolent, nonsexual and nonharassing behavior is creating a pathway to prisons for these children. Disruption of class and disrespect of teachers and students is inappropriate behavior and should not be tolerated in Texas schools. However, not tolerating this behavior does not mean we should treat our children like criminal suspects.

Children should be reprimanded for bad behavior and schools should be armed with the tools to do that. So if we eliminate the option to criminally charge children, what is the solution? Schools should first rely on their student code of conduct for small disruptions, such as using profanity in class. For more serious offenses, alternative disciplinary schools could be an option. One of the most effective tools would be positive behavioral support programs, which have been shown to reduce disciplinary problems. Additionally, police officers are trained in law enforcement and not necessarily focused on children's educational development. There is a need for police officers in schools to apply educational philosophy with a law-enforcement ethos, so that behavioral issues in schools are more appropriately addressed. Special training for school police officers should be required that would help them differentiate between behavior that is characteristically immature for a particular age group versus behavior that warrants a law-enforcement response. Training school police officers about child behavior and de-escalation techniques, peer mediation and school-based alternatives should be considered for more serious offenses. As a last resort, when Class C misdemeanor tickets are issued, amounts above the administrative court fee should be returned to the schools to set up mediation and anger-management programs to help children with severe behavioral issues.

House Bill 3758, which is being heard in the House Public Education Committee today, 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.

Giddings, D-Dallas, represents Texas House District 109. She is the author of HB 3758.

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