AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — State senators worried Oct. 30, that Texas has gone too far in imposing a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior in schools, noting that minority students are bearing the brunt of the punishment and school police officers are writing too many tickets for insignificant infractions.
Tony Fabelo, an Austin-based criminal justice consultant, told a joint committee meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice and Education Committees that a study following students from seventh grade to high school graduation showed that 83 percent of black male students and 70 percent of black female students statewide faced at least one disciplinary action.
The cases involved students being written up for poor behavior at school officials' discretion — not for major violations that would mandate disciplinary action, Fabelo said.
He said students with special needs of all races were far more likely than others to face disciplinary action. Still, black students in Texas were 31 percent more likely to be involved in cases of discretionary violations but 23 percent less likely to face mandatory expulsion, refuting any suggestion that black students simply behaved worse than students of other races, according to Fabelo.
Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, seized on the fact that eight of out of 10 black boys had faced at least one incident of disciplinary action.
"That's ridiculous and everyone in this room knows that's ridiculous," he said. "I'm tired of being sick and tired of this issue."
David Anderson, general counsel of the Texas Education Agency, reported that during the 2010-2011 school year, about 14.5 percent of students — or 730,000 across the state — faced some type of disciplinary action. Fully 12 percent faced in-school suspension, with most of the rest being suspended out-of-school or expelled.
Both he and Fabelo agreed that Texas is a leader among states in ensuring expelled students are referred to another school, or juvenile offenders' program, rather than thrown out on the street.
Other senators seized on school police officers and what they described as an epidemic of ticketing students.
Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire said current state law attempts to criminalize misbehavior in school. He cited several cases, including saying he'd heard of a case where a 14-year-old girl had been given a $500 ticket for truancy because she was pregnant and too embarrassed to come to school.
"Ticketing seems to be rampant," said Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, adding "zero tolerance is an issue but make sure it has some common sense."
Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Plano Republican who heads the Education Committee but is retiring at the end of the year, voiced similar concerns.
"I think that we've probably gone too far," she said. "We've got to have a way to rein this in."
Whitmire noted that some districts have police officers that almost never write tickets while others fine students for "too much perfume, chewing gum, throwing an eraser."
Lon Craft, of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which represents about 1,000 school district police officers statewide, said officers have no interest in imposing school policy.
"We don't want to be involved in the discipline," Craft said. "We want to protect the students and the teachers and visitors."
But he also said some officers have their hands tied by superintendents who want more tickets written to maintain order.
Lonnie Hollingsworth of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association noted that "a significant number" of teachers leave the profession because of a "lack of discipline and lack of administrative support in addressing discipline problems."
He said the group had no official position on ticketing but cautioned lawmakers that if they take away a key tool for dealing with unruly kids, they should give teachers alternatives to keep students in line.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.