Reforms Show Drop in Police Tickets for High School Students

Houston Chronicle

By Mike Ward

Amid a steep decline in the number of Texas students being ticketed by school police for misbehavior, new statistics on Tuesday showed write-ups for skipping classes have dropped by nearly a quarter.

Members of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee said that could be good news, if it means that more students are staying in school and not contributing to Texas’ dropout rate – and even if it just means that fewer students are being cited for minor infractions by police.

In both Houston and San Antonio, where ticketing of middle and high school students sparked controversy two years ago when a study showed that black and Hispanic students were more likely to face sanctions than white students, officials said reforms approved by the Legislature appear to be working – even though several administrators said they need to be tweaked.

The news came Tuesday as a national study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center showed that minority students are being suspended and expelled much more frequently than other students, mirroring an earlier study in Texas that helped spark the reforms.

“The whole purpose putting the change in statute in place was to reduce the number of tickets issued to students under 16, and it appears to be working,” said Committee Chairman Royce West, D-Dallas. “The numbers of school tickets are down significantly, including the 23-percent drop in failure to attend school.”

Behavior cops

Tuesday’s hearing addressed two reforms that took effect on Sept. 1, one authored by West and the other by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. Under those new laws, students who cause disruptions in classrooms, or misbehave in other ways, are supposed to be disciplined without tickets.

West and Whitmire said the new laws are intended to decriminalize misbehavior, since many of the students who were issued tickets ended up with criminal records before they turned 17 and dropped out of school at a higher rate than other students.

Both senators expressed concern that law enforcement at some schools has gone too far, with police officers serving too frequently as behavior cops instead of providing security.

Whitmire, who chaired a committee that produced the national report, cited recent incidents at Houston’s Yates High School, where a few students were suspended for three days after several iPads went missing, and at a Duncanville high school where 170 students were sent home for dress code violations.

“Two years ago, 45 students at Wheatley High School were called out of their classes and suspended because their attendance was below standard,” Whitmire said. “Now that makes sense: You suspend them for being at school, for bad attendance. How about working with them to keep them in school?”

Of the 45, Whitmire said 35 were later readmitted. Some had missed classes because they were homeless or in a mental hospital, among other reasons.

“But the other 10?” Whitmire asked. “We have no idea where they went. They dropped out.”

Tweaking needed?

School and police officials cautioned Tuesday that the new laws need to be tweaked, saying that their newly limited ability to issue tickets is adversely affecting discipline in some districts.

Scott McKenzie, a principal at San Antonio’s Sam Rayburn Middle School, said districts that have acted responsibly in issuing tickets in the past are being penalized – especially for incidents such as fighting and assaults, which have been addressed with tickets rather than charges.

“I’m concerned that these tickets have been used as a convenience,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston. David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that in the past four months of 2013, after Texas’ new laws took effect, 515 Class C misdemeanor tickets were issued for violations of the state’s school code, a more than 70 percent drop from the 1,805 tickets issued in the same four-month period of the previous year.

“The full intent of the bills was to keep kids out of court,” Slayton said. “There were a lot of kids going to court for minor offenses.”

For West, the drop is an early signal that the reforms are working. But they said the national report highlights how suspensions and expulsions also must be used properly.

“We now know this is a problem, the statistics show that,” said Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center. “The goal is to keep more of these students in school by providing learning conditions to address the students’ needs.”

If the reforms are successful, Whitmire said Texas and other states can avoid increasing dropout rates that often lead to more prison convicts. And they can also reduce the chances that students will face what a 17-year-old student did in Baytown.

“He was ticketed for being truant as a 12 year old. He never went to court,” the senator explained. “When he turned 17, when he was doing well in school, he got an adult ticket for failing to show up at court and the police came to school and arrested him, led him off in handcuffs.”

“That didn’t ever need to happen.”