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Public school students in Texas who have chewed gum in class, talked back to teachers or disrupted class have often received citations from school police officers. Beginning in September, students who engage in such levels of misbehavior will face discipline in a different manner.
While school administrators and teachers have traditionally handled student discipline, some school districts in Texas over the years have allowed school police officers to deal with certain types of misbehavior by charging students with Class C misdemeanors, a practice commonly referred to as student ticketing. Students charged must appear before a county or municipal judge and can face fines of up to $500 if found guilty by a judge.
Students who do not pay their fines could be arrested as soon as they turn 17 years old. Even if students pay the fines, the offenses could still appear on their criminal records.
The Legislature took steps this year toward decriminalizing such misbehavior at school with Senate Bill 393 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. The measure prevents school police officers from issuing citations for misbehavior at school, excluding traffic violations. Officers can still submit complaints about students, but it will be up to a local prosecutor whether to charge the student with a Class C misdemeanor.
If students are charged, prosecutors can choose to make students get tutoring, do community service or undergo counseling before they get sent to court. According to the Texas Supreme Court, roughly 300,000 students each year are given citations for behavior considered a Class C misdemeanor, including disruption of class, disorderly language and in-school fighting.
Some parents have applauded the change, saying student discipline should be handled in school and not the courtroom. However, some police officers say being able to give citations is a tool an officer should have. The new laws do not address truancy, which made up more than 113,000 Class C misdemeanor cases against children ages 12 to 17 in fiscal year 2012.
Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, said the law is a step in the right direction because it gives schools a chance to examine why a student was misbehaving in the first place instead and connect them with services that may help them in school.
Texas Appleseed also recommends that school police officers be given mandatory training on how to safely interact with young people and avoid escalating a confrontation. A measure to require this training failed in the legislative session.
Fowler said Texas still has a ways to go in ensuring that students exhibiting certain levels of misbehavior are taken off a negative track.
"While I expect the number of Class C offenses to drop, it won't eliminate the problem," Fowler said. "We could cut our numbers in half, but compared to the rest of the country, we would still be off the charts."
Some parents and lawyers say that school discipline is better in the hands of teachers and school administrators and that tickets have no place in schools.
Christi Smoot of Splendora said that while her son, a special-needs student, was being escorted to the principal's office last school year, he stopped to drink water. When an assistant principal grabbed him to take him to the office, Smoot said, her son pulled back.
Smoot said the assistant principal then asked for help from a school police officer, who carried him to the office. Smoot's son bit the police officer in the process, and he was charged with assault. Smoot got legal assistance, and the charge against her son was dismissed.
“He wasn’t trying to attack anyone. He’s not aggressive," Smoot said, adding, "I don't think the courts should be so involved in school punishment. I think the schools should handle it the way it's been done for years."
Many students who face Class C misdemeanor charges come from low-income households and cannot afford to pay the fines, said Mani Nezami, an attorney at the Juvenile Justice Project, a Texas Southern University program that offers free legal services for students who face such charges. Most students do not even know they are allowed to have an attorney, he added.
“There are some cases where a student could be facing up to a week in jail for something they did when they were in sixth or seventh grade,” Nezami said.
Clydell Duncan, the police chief at Beaumont Independent School District, said his officers use tickets on a limited basis. Duncan said he understands that tickets can be misused, but he said they were a valuable tool. Officers will not be able to do anything now unless the offense is violent, he said.
"It takes a tool away from the officers that witness behavior at a criminal level," he said.
In South Texas, McAllen ISD Police Chief Cris Esquivel Jr. applauded the new law and said his department has always left student discipline primarily to the teachers. Esquivel said his department responds if students are being disruptive and will escort them to the office, but has never issued tickets for student misbehavior. He said his officers respond if a teacher calls and says a student is aggressive, but they will not issue a citation.
Esquivel said he plans to inform teachers in his district about the law change and let them know school police officers stay out of classroom discipline.
"You're going to have to do a better job of managing your class," he said.
What is a Class C Misdemeanor?
Class C misdemeanors are the least serious criminal offenses. Outside of school, common Class C misdemeanors can include public intoxication and petty theft. Students convicted of this crime can pay a fine of up to $500 per offense.
MISDEMEANORS IN SCHOOL
School police officers had been able to give students tickets for offenses committed in school deemed Class C misdemeanors. Offenses included:
- Chewing gum in school;
- Disruption of class;
- Foul language;
- Fighting with another student;
- Talking back to the teacher;
- Failure to follow school rules;
- Reckless damage of school property;
UNDER SB 393
Looking forward, school police officers can no longer issue tickets to students for misbehavior in school. Officers can issue complaints, but a prosecutor will decide whether to charge the student with a crime.
Students who got a Class C misdemeanor in school were sent to a county or municipal court. If found guilty, they could be forced to pay up to $500 per offense. Students who did not pay their fines could be arrested once they turn 17.
The punishment remains the same, but under SB 393 experts expect the number of students charged with Class C misdemeanors to go down.