Sunday, November 6, 2011

Taking Students to Court for School Misbehavior

In Texas, the municipal courthouse is the new principal’s office.  School districts increasingly rely on ticketing to address low-level student misbehavior.  This means more students are being fast tracked into the criminal justice system.  Moreover, whether and when a school district issues tickets is completely discretionary.  This means students from certain school districts, and minority students, are disproportionately ticketed and pushed into the criminal justice system.

Since the 1990s, Texas schools have begun commissioning and padding school-based police forces.  Today, police patrol the hallways of most Texas public schools.

The increase in school-based policing coincides with schools’ increasing reliance on Class C misdemeanor ticketing to address student misbehavior.   The percentage of non-traffic tickets issued to juveniles grew from 2% in 1994 to an astounding 40% in 2008.  In Austin ISD, a recent 31% growth in police staff coincided with a 50% increase in student ticketing.  Dallas ISD recently experienced a 24% growth in police staff and a corresponding 95% jump in ticketing.   Overall, in the 2006-07 school year, Texas juveniles received a total of 275,000 non-traffic tickets.

The increasing use of ticketing as punishment for school misbehavior is concerning because of the criminal consequences for youth.  Students receiving tickets must appear in municipal court.  Students who are convicted have criminal records.   Moreover, courts issue warrants for arrest when students fail to appear or pay the court-ordered fine.   In other words, receiving a ticket for school misbehavior may put a student on the fast track to the criminal justice system.

The criminal consequences are doubly concerning because most tickets are issued for low-level, non-violent offenses.    Only 12% of tickets issued during Texas’ 2006-07 school year were for violent or weapons offenses.  The majority (52%) of tickets issued in 2006-07 were for the misdemeanors “disorderly conduct” and “class disruption.”   The disorderly conduct and class disruption categories include typical, arguably trivial, school misbehaviors like using profanity, yelling out answers in class, physical scuffling with another student, throwing paper airplanes in class, and throwing food in the cafeteria.

School districts have wide discretion when it comes to ticketing.  This means different districts answer the question of whether to ticket differently.  Some districts ticket sparingly, while others ticket regularly.  For example, in 2006-07, Humble ISD issued 431 tickets to its student body of 31,144, yielding a ticketing rate of 1%.  Compare to Galveston ISD, which issued 921 tickets to its student body of 8,430, yielding a ticketing rate of 11%. 

Different districts answer the question of when to ticket differently, too.  For example, Austin ISD only issues tickets for fighting when one student assaults another, whereas Houston ISD issues tickets for various types of fighting, including “mutual combat” between two students.   Districts also answer the question of when to ticket differently for students with different skin colors.  Across the state, African American students are disproportionately ticketed.  In a typical example, Dallas ISD issued 62% of its tickets to black students.  Yet black students comprise only 30% of total enrollment.

Overall, recent growth in school-based policing had coincided with a vast increase in the number of tickets issued to Texas students for low-level, non-violent school behaviors.  Therefore an increased number of students are pushed into the criminal justice system.  Moreover, ticketing policies vary from school district to school district, and from student to student.  Therefore students from certain school districts, and minority students, are disproportionately pushed into the criminal justice system.  The overall increase in the number of tickets issued, and the discretionary nature of ticketing, must be addressed by the Texas legislature.  Possible legislative solutions include (1) mandating a graduated model whereby students cannot receive tickets until their third consecutive offense, and (2) entirely eliminating ticketing for the low-level offenses of disorderly conduct and class disruption.

Note:  All data and statistics referenced in this post are from a recent Texas Appleseed study.

Citation:  Texas Appleseed, Texas’ School-To-Prison Pipeline: Ticketing, Arrest & Use of Force in Public Schools (2010), available at

Therese Edmiston

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