Chewing gum may be considered rude, maybe even disruptive. But in some Texas schools, it is a class C misdemeanor. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee today discussed a bill that would reverse the statute that allows police officers to issue misdemeanor citations to students for infractions like chewing gum, sleeping in class and cursing.
The bill, proposed by Committee Chairman Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would prohibit school district police officers from issuing citations for disrupting a classroom — the citation that most students receive for non-criminal offenses. The bill would also allow citations, if any, to go through juvenile courts rather than through municipal courts.
Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, said that out of the 420,000 tickets issued last year in Texas, 300,000 were for things like profanity and truancy — behavior that many wouldn't consider criminal. Texas Appleseed recently released a report that showed a student as young as 6 received a ticket from an officer. Fowler told the committee that one record indicated a student as young as 4 was ticketed.
"For juveniles, tickets can have long-standing consequences. If they plea and they pay the fine, or if they're convicted, they have to reveal that on a college application or a job application," Fowler said. "There is simply no evidence that I've seen anywhere that suggests that this is an effective way to deal with this low-level, minor misbehavior in our schools."
The fines also have deeper consequences, Fowler said, citing the Texas ACLU's lawsuit against Hidalgo County after students were forced to serve time for school-related fines related to class C tickets.
Trae Morris, a Pasadena Independent School District officer, testified against the bill, saying it would limit the ability of an officer to intervene in physical altercations in school, because officers wouldn't be able to charge students with disrupting a class. In that instance, Morris said, officers would have to charge them with disorderly conduct or assault, which do not apply on school grounds.
"We run into a problem if we're trying to enforce something that's not against the law," Morris said. "Disorderly conduct deals with mutual combat."
Morris added that disorderly conduct applies only in public places and that classrooms are not public places. But Whitmire said the bill gives flexibility to law enforcement and that schools need to return to a common-sense approach — one that does not include ticketing.
"I think the presence of law enforcement in our schools has been a deterrent," Whitmire said. "But I also know in some jurisdictions the writing of class C misdemeanors is being used to generate revenue and justify the size of the police force."
Whitmire added that Austin ISD recently spent $140,000 on a ticket-producing machine so that officers can expedite the process of giving out tickets.
"I think it's become something that we've allowed to get away from us and this will ring it in," Whitmire said.
After public testimony, the committee left the bill pending.