Disrupting class used to land kids in the principal’s office or detention. In Texas, however, more and more children are facing criminal prosecution, criminal records and hefty fines for acting out in school.
It is estimated that at least 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to kids in Texas each year. The vast majority of these tickets are commonly linked to minor school-related misbehavior. Foul language, minor fights, missing school or disrupting class results in Class C misdemeanor tickets and a trip to court for thousands of Texas kids each year.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a wave of "get tough on crime" laws and zero tolerance policies. Fear of the juvenile predator resonated with families across the nation after incidents like Columbine, resulting in the outsourcing of school discipline where adult courts became the new detention hall.
The increase of ticketing in schools coincides with a growth of school-based policing. In fact, campus policing is the fastest growing area of law enforcement in the state. Campus police officers, also known as School Resource Officers, are increasingly tasked with handling student misbehavior.
Schools are funneling children to adult courts where they are not afforded several protections that they would receive in juvenile court. In municipal court, there is no requirement for prosecutor review. While poor kids are entitled to counsel in juvenile court, no similar entitlement exists in adult municipal court. Indigent children can also be sentenced with a fine in adult court whereas a juvenile court cannot impose a fine, or even enter a judgment finding the child guilty of a crime.
The consequences of using adult courts to discipline students are many. First, children are unnecessarily involved with the justice system, which in some cases leaves them with criminal records. Failure to appear in court can result in arrest warrants. When these kids, most of whom are not old enough to drive, are required to appear at court, it places an undue burden on families. Additionally, those found guilty often have to pay fines of up to $500.
While some may argue that the growing trend in school ticketing reflects an increase in student misbehavior, statistics show that juvenile crime is declining. From 2000 to 2008, there has been a 14 percent decrease in referrals to the juvenile justice system. This suggests that the increase in ticketing is not a result of more children acting out in school, but rather the product of an increased presence of School Resource Officers and a reliance on ticketing as a form of school discipline.
Minor disciplinary problems should be dealt with in schools. Class C misdemeanor tickets have no place in our educational institutions. Unless schools are prepared to arrest the child, the adult criminal court should not be involved. Other serious misbehaviors can be dealt with within the existing juvenile justice system.
The case can be made to involve the justice system in schools in extreme situations. Yet many schools are passing the buck on discipline for even minor, non-violent incidents. We have to ask ourselves: Should the adult justice system continue to play a role in school discipline? If Texas schools are to give children every opportunity to succeed, then they should stop branding their missteps in the courts.