Misbehave in a Texas classroom and, chances are, you won’t find yourself scrawling rote across a blackboard after eighth period. Instead, the criminal justice system is increasingly the destination for mischief-makers — some as young as 6 — in the state’s public schools, according to a new study from Texas Appleseed that analyzes data collected over a five-year period between 2001 and 2007. As school districts face deep funding cuts during the 2011 legislative session, the report sheds light on what is a rapidly growing part of public school budgets: campus security.
For children in many districts throughout the state, conduct like disrupting class, using profanity, acting up on a school bus, fighting in the hallway and truancy is enough for a class C misdemeanor ticket — an offense that can carry a fine between $60 and $500 and remain on a student’s criminal record. And those students are disproportionately African-American or in special education classes.
To compile the report, the Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group sent open records requests to municipal courts and to the 167 districts in the state — including the Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin independent school districts — that have campus-based police districts. Of those districts, only 26 could provide any part of the information Appleseed requested, and often that was not broken down by race or ethnicity, age or special education status because the state doesn’t require districts to keep data on student ticketing or arrests.
But statistics from the 15 districts that identified the race and ethnicity of ticketed and arrested students show that 11 of them cited African-American students at a rate disproportionate to their representation in the student body. Those numbers are troubling, says Appleseed Legal Director Deborah Fowler, because research already indicates that black students are more likely to get punished for subjective offenses like disrupting class. “We start to worry whether or not there are issues surrounding bias that are informing police practices,” she says. Only two districts, Midland ISD and San Angelo ISD, reported data according to special education status, but both ticketed those students at rates more than double their proportion of the student body.
“There’s really no oversight over any of the district police departments by any entity,” Fowler says. That’s because Texas, unlike many other states, allows school districts to commission their own police force. That can result in less transparency, she says, because district police departments don’t have to follow the same procedures as their municipal counterparts.
And while they aren’t required to keep detailed records of their practices, campus police departments are also consuming more of districts’ budgets. Among the 18 districts that provided staffing and budget data to Appleseed, the officer-to-student ratio in some districts rivaled that of some municipal police forces. Additionally, the report found that spending on school security “dwarfs” that in areas like social work services and curriculum development in many of the districts. All but four of the districts reported security staffing increases during the five-year period, a figure that contrasts with a national trend that shows a reduction in non-school police department hires.
The rising spending on campus security and ticketing of students in schools comes as referrals to the state's juvenile justice system dropped by 14 percent between 2000 and 2008. Fowler attributes increased police presence on Texas campuses to the widespread public fear of youth violence in the 1980s and 1990s, which reached their apogee with the 1999 Columbine shootings.
"A lot of the rhetoric is that school campuses are more dangerous places now than they were 15 years ago,” she says. “If you look historically at the data, that's just not supported. The incidence of crime of school campuses, particularly violent crimes, is very, very low. And that's true nationwide."
Among the report’s legislative policy recommendations is that the state require special training for police officers who work with students. Currently, there are no limitations on the use of force like physical restraints and pepper spray, which Fowler says are “widely used” against students. The report also suggests changes to the state education code to prevent schools from receiving revenue from misdemeanor ticketing, the decriminalization of low-level offenses like disrupting class, and to prohibit the ticketing of students under age 14.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairs the state Senate Criminal Justice committee, which held an interim hearing on districts’ disciplinary practices in April. At the hearing, school district chiefs defended ticketing as an important tool to curb students' disruptive conduct and said it is often used only as a last resort.
Whitmire, however, disagrees. “It’s just nuts,” he says, “There just has to be a recognition that this is out of control.”
The senator intends to propose legislation that requires districts to more narrowly define punishable offenses. He has also called for districts to report instances of ticketing to the state. "I think we need to back to the drawing board,” he says, “In an effort to have safe classes, we've gone overboard.”