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In Texas, Police in Schools Criminalize 300,000 Students Each Year

The "good guy with a gun" seems to do a lot more policing than protecting.
 
 
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Photo Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

 
 
 
 

In Texas, hundreds of thousands of students are winding up in court for committing very serious offenses such as cursing or farting in class. Some of these so-called dangerous criminals (also known as teenagers) will face arrest and even incarceration, like the honors student who spent a night in jail for skipping class, or the 12-year-old who was arrested for spraying perfume on her neck. These cases have at least one thing in common in that they were carried out by special police officers walking a controversial beat: the hallways and classrooms of public schools.

As political pressure from both sides of the aisle mounts to increase police presence in American schools, evidence suggests adding armed guards will only thrust more disadvantaged youth into the criminal justice system. Civil rights groups say policing our schools will further the institutionalization of what's known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

To understand the potential consequences of putting police inside public schools, we can take a look at Texas, where students face one of the most robust school-to-prison pipelines in the country. According to the youth advocacy group Texas Appleseed, school officers issued 300,000 criminal citations to students in 2010, some handed to children as young as six years old.

As the New York Times notes, Texas Appleseed and a local NAACP chapter filed a complaint in February against a school district with a particular knack for criminalizing children, especially minorities. The complaint says Bryan Independent School District of Texas’ Brazos County, disproportionately ticketed black students for misdemeanors, potentially violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black students accounted for 46 percent of tickets issued in 2011 to 2012, despite only making up 21 percent of the student body. 

Most of the criminal citations levied against students were for “Class C” misdemeanors, compelling them to miss classes in order to attend court, and often face addition disciplinary action from the district. As the complaint notes, “These students can then face sentences including fines, court costs, community service, probation and mandatory participation in ‘First Offender’ programs.”

The complaint also adds that the problems often don’t end there. If students fail to appear in court, or if their parents can’t afford to pay fines, then the state issues an arrest warrant for them when they turn 17. Thus, these tickets “can follow students past high school into their adult lives with many of the same consequences as a criminal conviction for a more serious offense, including having to report their convictions on applications for college, the military or employment.”

Advocacy groups add that many behavioral problems warranting tickets in Texas schools seem to be rather trivial for something that can lead to a criminal conviction. For example, some “Class C” misdemeanors under the state’s penal code include using profanity, making offensive gestures, creating “by chemical means” an “unreasonable odor” and “making unreasonable noise in a public place” In other words, yelling, farting, wearing Axe body spray and generally being a teenager is officially illegal in Texas.

Many commentators and several Democratic lawmakers scoffed when NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre suggested in the wake of the Newtown shooting that armed guards in schools is “the one thing that would keep people safe,” notoriously adding that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Yet, not long after LaPierre’s press conference, the White House released a plan calling for an additional 1,000 “specially trained police officers that work in schools.” And just last week, an NRA task force released a report fleshing out its proposal to put armed guards in every school. The head of that task force, former GOP Congressman Asa Hutchinson, announced his intentions to run for Arkansas Governor days after the report was released.

"Obviously, we believe [armed guards] will make a difference in the various layers that make up school safety," said Asa Hutchinson in a news conference.

Several academics and judges dispute Mr. Hutchinson’s claim, agreeing with Texas Appleseed’s reports that police in schools turn them less into safe havens than juvenile centers.

“There is no evidence that placing officers in the schools improves safety,” University of Maryland criminologist Denise C. Gottfredson told the Times. “And it increases the number of minor behavior problems that are referred to the police, pushing kids into the criminal system.”

Even Texas chief Supreme Court justice Wallace B. Jefferson called out his state for its role in the school-to-prison pipeline. "We are criminalizing our children for nonviolent offenses," he said in a biennial address on the state of the judiciary, referring to the 300,000 or so tickets issued to students in Texas schools each year.

 

Steven Hsieh is an editorial assistant at AlterNet and writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @stevenjhsieh.