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Law Keeps Some Students Out Of Court, But Questions Remain

Starting last year, students ages 10 to 17 to couldn’t be issued Class C misdemeanors in Texas public schools. It’s kept kids out of the court system, but critics say it’s also taken disciplinary tools out of the hands of school administrators.

If you were a public school student in Texas before 2013, trespassing, classroom disruption, or possession of drugs or alcohol on school grounds could have gotten you a class c misdemeanor from campus police. But starting last year, school police aren’t allowed to issue those tickets to any students aged 10 to 17. Mary Schmid-Mergler is an attorney with social justice nonprofit, Texas Appleseed. She says before the law, too many students were ending up in the justice system.

"What we reported was that school discipline had increasingly moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse and misbehavior that used to mean a trip to the principal’s office was landing children in court and resulting in criminal convictions," Schmid-Mergler said at a Texas House Corrections and Public Education joint committee hearing.

Since the law took effect last year, there’s been an almost 83 percent drop in the number of cases filed in court that originate in public schools. That’s almost 90,000  fewer cases from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year when the new law took effect—those numbers are according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.

But critics say by taking away school police’s ability to ticket students, it’s taken away administrator’s ability to discipline students. Randy Hoyer is the superintendent of Lampasas ISD. He says there hasn’t been an increase in behavior problems in his district, but he’s worried that one day students will take advantage of the system.

"And just doesn’t make sense to say to students, parents and teachers that if you’re going to get caught with drug paraphernalia, tobacco and alcohol it’s better to get caught at school than on Saturday night on the street," Hoyer said.

Districts are still able to ticket students, but the process has to start with a formal complaint procedure. The law encourages districts to implement a “graduated sanctioning” process where students will face increasing consequences for bad behavior.

Craig Goralski is with the Texas School District Police Chiefs association. He says districts have adapted to the new law well, but he says eliminating the ticketing process keeps parents out of the picture.

"It’s been harder to get parents involved because when you used to write the ticket, the parent had to come to court," Goralski said. "And we all know without parent involvement both on the education side or the discipline side, it’s much harder to guide that student."

Several advocates recommended finding more ways to get parents involved in the disciplinary process. The legislature is still taking feedback on the law ahead of next year’s legislative session.