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Texas students sent from classroom to courtroom

August 25, 2011

In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.
“Guilty,” the boy’s mother heard him say.He had been part of a scuffle on a school bus.

In another generation, he might have received only a scolding from the principal or a period of detention. But an array of get-tough policies in U.S. schools in the past two decades has brought many students into contact with police and courts — part of a trend some experts call the criminalization of student discipline.

Now, such practices are under scrutiny nationally. Federal officials want to limit punishments that push students from the classroom to courtroom, and a growing number of state and local leaders are raising similar concerns.

In Texas, the specter of harsh discipline has been especially clear.Here, police issue tickets: Class C misdemeanor citations for offensive language, class disruption, schoolyard fights. Thousands of students land in court, with fines of up to $500. Students with outstanding tickets may be arrested after age 17.

Texas also stands out for opening up millions of student records to a landmark study of discipline, released in July. The study shows that 6 in 10 students were suspended or expelled at least once from seventh grade on. After their first suspension, they were nearly three times more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system the next year, compared with students with no such disciplinary referrals.

Citing the Texas research, federal officials announced last month an initiative to break what many call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Suspensions, expulsions and arrests are used too often to enforce school order, officials said.

“That is something that clearly has to stop,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington alongside Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

This month, Duncan recounted that in his old job as Chicago schools chief, he was stunned to learn that so many arrests occurred in schools. The first response to student misbehavior, he said, “can’t be to pick up the phone and call 911.”

The federal focus comes amid other change. In Colorado, a legislative task force is examining discipline practices including law enforcement referrals and school ticketing. Los Angeles police recently agreed to cut back on ticketing tardy students en route to school.

Connecticut officials have begun screening cases after students wound up in
court on violations such as for having soda, running in the hall and dressing improperly. “It’s not that we don’t think these things should be handled,” said William Carbone, the state’s executive director of court support services. “We just think they should be handled in the school rather than the court.”

Research shows that students who have been arrested or appeared in court are more likely to drop out of high school, said Gary Sweeten, an Arizona State University criminologist. Dropouts, in turn, are more likely than graduates to be incarcerated or unemployed.

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