A new student discipline program that emphasizes handling bad behavior in schools rather than courts has taken hold in Waco ISD. Advocates believe that if the program improves academic outcomes for teens, it could become a model for a broader shift away from criminalizing student behavior in a state where students have been ticketed for horseplay, cursing or putting on perfume. The pilot, initiated by the governor’s office, is in its second year. Charlene Hamilton is among the believers. “We’re living in a culture of zero tolerance. We got away from classroom management,” said Hamilton, who oversees the project for the Waco Independent School District. “We are remedying that here.”
The students she works with used to be slapped with police citations and sent before a judge. Now, teachers and students are trying to address situations on campus through a program called Suspend Kids to School. The program is aimed at preventing students teetering on the edge of suspension or expulsion from landing in alternative education programs.
Gov. Rick Perry’s Criminal Justice Division picked Waco ISD for the $600,000 pilot project because it has its own police department, officers were ticketing students for behavior issues and Waco has close proximity to Austin. If Perry likes what he sees when a report on the program emerges from Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute, state leaders may reform zero tolerance laws adopted in the mid-1990s.
Under Suspend Kids to School, teachers receive training to better manage their classrooms, and leaders among students receive training in peer mediation and campus teen courts. The district also has a Saturday course to help parents address student behavior. The early signs have proven positive. The number of students referred to alternative school has dropped dramatically. The district referred 104 students to Challenge Academy, the county’s alternative education program, last school year, Waco ISD spokesman Dale Caffey said. So far this year Waco ISD has referred three students and estimates that with the reforms the district will refer 22 students total this year.
The number of citations for Class C misdemeanors dropped 42 percent in 2011-12 compared to a year earlier, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said. These strategies could bite into the estimated $600 million spent per year statewide on campus policing and on-campus and off-campus alternative education programs. The 11 biggest school districts in Texas spent $140 million last school year on disciplinary and juvenile justice programs for suspended and expelled students, on top of some $87 million spent on campus security efforts, according to a report released this week by Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based social justice think tank.
There are costs to families, too.Ticketed students typically land before a local justice of the peace, where they can be fined $500 for fighting or other disruptions. Throw in lost time from work for a parent to take a child to court and pay the fine, and the cost climbs higher. At least in Waco ISD, the reforms don’t mean a reduction in costs from staffing the police department of about 30 people. A district spokesman said that responsibilities would shift, turning police who write citations now into truancy officers.“The objective of the program is not to decrease the size of the WISD police force. However, the program is enabling police officers to be spend less time handling disciplinary related matters that are more appropriate for school administrators to handle,” Caffey said via e-mail to Texas Watchdog. “Police officers ... security guards and crossing guards, all of whom make up the Waco ISD police department, are still needed to keep our schools safe.” Campus police for school districts write some 275,000 tickets a year for disrupting class, disorderly conduct, truancy and other conduct violations, according to a 2010 study by Texas Appleseed. Study authors say it’s likely the number of tickets written “grossly exceeds that number,” based on low reporting of data to the Texas Office of Court Administration. Many students are repeatedly ticketed, with fines of $50 to $500 for each offense. “One municipal court providing data to Texas Appleseed indicated a youth had received as many as 11 tickets. In the same court, more than 350 youth had received multiple tickets, with some receiving six or more,” the study states. (See page 69.) Officers in Waco ISD issued 1,070 tickets in 2006-07, when the district had more than 15,400 students, the Texas Appleseed study found.
A separate report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center suggests all that ticketing is associated with poorer academic outcomes. Researchers for the Council of State Governments followed every Texas seventh-grader in 2000, 2001 and 2002 — about 930,000 students — for six years. The study found that almost a third of students disciplined ended up repeating at least one grade, and that African-American and special education students were disproportionately disciplined.
“This report demonstrates that if we want our kids to do better in school and reduce their involvement in the juvenile justice system, we in the legislature need to continue looking into how teachers can be better supported and how the school discipline system can be improved,” State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said via a Council news release when the report was published.
A spokeswoman for the Council said officials nationwide started examining different aspects of school discipline earlier this month, though their findings are more than a year away. “The policy recommendations will focus on both state and local efforts that can be tailored to the distinct needs of jurisdictions, and we hope that the report will have utility for lawmakers” and others dealing with juvenile justice.