During his first two weeks at Stephen F. Austin Middle School in Bryan in 2010, De’angelo Rollins started to get bullied. “My son had never been in trouble, never had any anger issues," said Marjorie Holman, his mother. “He is very shy, very bashful.”
When Rollins told a teacher about the bullying, Holman said, the teacher warned her son that he should not “tattle.” When the bully hit Rollins in the face the next day, and Rollins fought back, a school police officer wrote Rollins a ticket. In the end, Rollins was given three days of in-school suspension, a fine, community service, four months of probation and had to attend a first-time offender class. If he hadn’t completed these tasks, he could have been arrested once he turned 17.
On Wednesday, several organizations filed a complaint against the Bryan Independent School District, asking the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to require the district to change policies they say disproportionately harm black students. “They've really blurred the lines between law enforcement and student discipline,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy group that filed the complaint along with the Brazos County branch of the NAACP.
In an email sent Wednesday, Bryan ISD spokeswoman Sandra Farris said the district had received the complaint. "Until we have fully reviewed the document, we cannot comment on its merit. We take the allegations seriously and will conduct an internal review to address the issues the complaint raises," Farris said.
In investigating Rollins' case, Texas Appleseed says it found that black students in Bryan received more than 50 percent of citations for what they call “non-dangerous adolescent misbehavior,” even though those students only make up 21 percent of the student population.
Appleseed also reported that the district’s ticketing rate, 59.6 per 1,000 students in the 2010-11 school year, ranked second out of 42 Texas school districts studied. Last year, reporters from PBS revealed that in Bryan, a special-needs student had been ticketed for singing the ABC’s too loudly, another for throwing a paper airplane. These tickets must be reported in college and employment applications, and advocates say they make students more likely to enter the criminal justice system later.
The complaint asks the federal office to require Bryan ISD to provide more training for school resource officers — the police officers stationed at schools who can issue warnings or citations, and can arrest students — in conflict resolution, adolescent behavior and “de-escalation techniques.” It also asks for better reporting of ticketing data and intervention services for students who receive multiple citations, and for the student code of conduct be revised to include “graduated consequences for misbehavior that minimize class time and reserve suspension, expulsion and police responses to student misbehavior to only those incidents that post a safety risk.”
Many of the recommendations made by Texas Appleseed were discussed by Texas lawmakers at a hearing in October. David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Judicial Council, said that law enforcement officers often write tickets without having witnessed the offense in question, and base the ticket on the teacher’s description. He said districts should direct teachers to file complaints with local courts and allow judges to make the decision on how to proceed, rather than go the law enforcement and ticketing route.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, said she was concerned that giving teachers more discretion in writing complaints would force them to classify offenses without being trained in law enforcement. "I could see where we're creating some gray areas,” she said at the time.
For Holman, who continues to advocate on behalf of her son De’angelo, the district focuses too much on behavior she says is normal for middle and high school students. “It’s just crazy kid stuff,” Holman said. “They don't talk about learning. They just worry about discipline.”
School officials say the students are “disrespectful,” she added. “But since when is being disrespectful a crime?”