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Student Court Cases in Texas Drop 83 Percent In One Year

Nathan Bernier/KUT News
The number of student discipline cases filed in Texas juvenile courts dropped 83 percent in one year, according to the state Office of Court Administration.

The number of student discipline cases filed in Texas juvenile courts dropped 83 percent in one year, according to the state's Office of Court Administration. Officials say the drop is related to two bills passed by Texas lawmakers last legislative session, SB 393 and SB 1114, which allowed students' behavioral issues to be handled internally, rather than ticketing students and adjudicating behavior in courts.

“We were expecting a drop,” said David Slayton, director of the Office of Court Administration at a joint Public Education and Juvenile Justice hearing at the Texas Capitol Wednesday. “I don’t think we were expecting that significant of a drop in the first year. It’s quite astonishing.”

One amended law prohibits schools from writing tickets for Class C misdemeanors for offenses on campus, such as fighting, profanity or disrupting class.  Instead, schools must write a formal complaint against the student to take them to court for those offenses.

It also made changes to the discipline process, so school districts do not immediately take a student to the courtroom. Instead, students can go into a first offender program and allow law enforcement to formally handle the issue outside the courts.

The bills were a response to a 2011 report from the Council of State Governments that found 6 in 10 public school students in Texas were suspended or expelled from class between 7th and 12th grades.

Supporters say the bills are working: fewer students are getting taken to court, convicted and acquiring criminal records, which often has a negative effect on a student’s future.

Others say it’s removing tools for schools to discipline students.

"I am concerned that as we move forward into this year and future years, students will begin to realize that there is no legal, criminal consequence to these disruptive behaviors," said Randy Hoyer, superintendent of Lampasas ISD. "I'm concerned if you're going to get caught with drug paraphernalia, it's better to be caught at school then out on the streets."

Plus, Hoyer says issuing a formal complaint is more time consuming than writing a citation.

"That was really the point," said Mary Schmid Mergler with Texas Appleseed. "That maybe there would be more thought put into who should actually be charged with a Class C offense and when a child could be disciplined within the school setting."

She says the hope is that schools rely less on the courts to discipline students.

But Craig Goralski, police chief in the Aldine school district, said when the school handles a disciplinary issue internally, it's harder to get parents involved. When a student does receive a citation, a parent is required to show up in court. 

“We all know without parent involvement on the education side, or the discipline side, it’s much harder to guide that student,” Goralski said.

Officials say it’s too early to say if the changes are having any effect on academic performance or a deterioration of school climate.

Lampasas ISD Superintendent Randy Hoyer encouraged the TEA to track the number of Class C misdemeanors  citation issued by a campus and require corrective action plans for campuses that issue excessive citations.

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