JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our continuing look at the dropout crisis in America.
A number of school districts in Texas are sending tens of thousands of students into the criminal justice system every year for violating school rules.
NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our story. It's part of our American Graduate series.
TOM BEARDEN: Seventeen-year-old Diane Tran is still upset after spending 24 hours in jail for missing class. The 11th grade honor student in Willis, Texas, was locked up for contempt of court after being warned by a justice of the peace to stop skipping school.
The judge who issued that warning in April sentenced her to jail last month when the absences continued.
LANNY MORIARTY, judge: If you let one of them run loose, what are you going to do with the rest of them? Let them go too?
TOM BEARDEN: But after Houston's KHOU reported her story, the international spotlight fell on Tran and Texas' school truancy laws, laws that were originally crafted in the mid-19th century to keep kids in class and prevent parents from pulling them out to work in the fields and then later in factories.
But for students like Tran, life is more complicated than it used to be. She is a straight-A student who holds down two jobs in order to help support her younger sister and another sibling in college.
DIANE TRAN, student, Willis High school: Well, the judge had warned me about missing too many days of school. But I just couldn't help it.
TOM BEARDEN: Tran says that schedule led to more than 10 unexcused absences in six months, which under Texas law can warrant criminal Class C misdemeanor charges, fines up to $500 and potentially jail time.
After the news spread, the judge ended up removing the citation from her record. But the case sparked a new debate about the merits of criminalizing student behavior.
DEBORAH FOWLER, deputy director, Texas Appleseed: There's absolutely no research that would support using ticketing as a deterrent or as a method of addressing childhood misbehavior.
TOM BEARDEN: Attorney Deborah Fowler has studied the issue extensively and authored a report for Texas Appleseed, a public interest law center in Austin.
DEBORAH FOWLER: A lot of people assume that it was just after Columbine. But the reality is that we started to see a movement towards zero tolerance school discipline practices earlier than that. And it was related to a lot of the fear around the rising rate of juvenile crime in the late '80s, early '90s.
And in Texas in 1995, we passed our zero tolerance laws.
TOM BEARDEN: The report, released last December, examined the ticketing practices in 22 school districts across Texas. Fowler found that on top of cutting class, thousands of students sometimes as young as 5 were facing criminal misdemeanor charges that for behavior in another era would have resulted in detention or a trip to the principal's office.
Citations for disruption of class or disorderly conduct have been issued for fighting, cursing, and talking back to a teacher as violations of Texas code. Fowler says the roots of these recent get-tough laws have historical significance, dating back to the days of massive protests sweeping across college campuses in the 1960s.
DEBORAH FOWLER: Most of the disruption of class type offenses were written really to address student demonstrations. They're being used radically differently today. They're using those laws to prosecute individual students for classroom behavior.
TOM BEARDEN: But some Texas educators feel today's laws are needed, like Bryan Superintendent Tommy Wallace, who says the days of schools handling discipline by themselves are unfortunately over.
TOMMY WALLACE, Bryan Independent School District superintendent: If a student tells a teacher to, you know, go F-themselves, calls them a B., or throws chairs or fights in the classroom, those are all typical offenses. And we have got to have order in the classroom.
TOM BEARDEN: As the zero tolerance movement grew, many Texas school districts began creating their own police departments. And the state soon expanded the types of behavior punishable by misdemeanor tickets and made a pivotal legal decision in terms of where the cases would be heard.
DEBORAH FOWLER: The difference is that in the adult municipal and J.P. courts where they're processed for these Class C tickets, they don't have any of the protections That are offered in the juvenile courts. So the confidentiality laws that attach in the juvenile courts don't attach in these courts.
The kids are actually ending up with -- if they plea or if they go through the whole process, they end up with a criminal conviction that they will later have to reveal on college applications, job applications.
TOM BEARDEN: And Fowler says that is exactly what 14-year-old De'Angelo Rollins of Bryan, Texas, will have to do. Two years ago, Rollins received a three-day suspension and a disruption of class citation with a $350 fine for fighting with another student.
DE'ANGELO ROLLINS, student: This was over one fight. One fight, and I was so, at the time -- I was so -- at the time, I was like, wow, one fight, and I'm getting a citation for it? It didn't make any sense. I mean, a whole bunch of people fight.
TOM BEARDEN: Rollins' mother, Marjorie Holmon, had no idea criminal tickets were given to students at Bryan schools until he came home with one. She says her son was being bullied and that he simply acted in self-defense, a claim that appears to be backed up by the school's incident report.
It reads, "Another boy hit him and he fought back."
Texas Appleseed's Fowler helped the family understand their legal options.
DEBORAH FOWLER: How did you first find out that De'Angelo had gotten a ticket?
TOM BEARDEN: Eventually, a judge reduced the fine from $350 to $69. But the misdemeanor will remain on Rollins' permanent record after he pleaded no contest.
MARJORIE HOLMON, Mother: The judge issued our son 20 hours of community service, four months' probation. He had to attend a first-time offender program. Now, that's what really shocked us. A first-time offender program?
TOM BEARDEN: And Rollins is certainly not alone. In fact, Texas Appleseed's report indicates more than 275,000 non-traffic related Class C citations for juveniles are handled every year in the state's municipal and justice of the peace courts.
These types of cases have included a 13-year-old special-needs student ticketed for disruption of class by singing the ABC song too loudly, a high school student ticketed for throwing paper airplanes in class, and a middle school girl ticketed for spraying herself with perfume.
Fowler says students who end up with tickets like these are less likely to graduate from high school.
DEBORAH FOWLER: When a kid has just one court referral, they are much more likely to drop out of school. So when you make the decision to put a child in formal contact with a court system, you are increasing the likelihood that they're going to drop out.
TOM BEARDEN: And these citations aren't just burdensome for the students. They often tie up courtrooms, like Judge Jo Ann Delgado's in Houston, who sees up to 120 cases like this each week. But Delgado says she understands why the state of Texas has the strict disciplinary policies in place.
JO ANN DELGADO, Judge: The minor infractions that we used to see are not minor anymore. And we're dealing with much more serious situations. And it may call for the assistance of a police officer.
TOM BEARDEN: However, increased scrutiny of student ticketing is forcing many in the state to reconsider how best to enforce the laws, including Bryan Superintendent Tommy Wallace, who concedes that his district is reviewing the policy and that he hopes to curb citations going for.
And issuing fewer tickets is something police Chief Jimmy Dotson says is already happening in his district.
JIMMY DOTSON, police chief, Houston Independent School District: We're supposed to be educating kids and putting them into college, and not putting them into the criminal justice system.
TOM BEARDEN: But for students like De'Angelo Rollins who have already been swept up into the legal system, and for his mother, who helped him through it, change isn't coming quickly enough.
MARJORIE HOLMON: My concern is, is that the children who have received these tickets sometimes makes me wonder, are they not working? Are they having trouble getting into schools, finding jobs, going into the military?
TOM BEARDEN: Last year, the Texas state legislature did take up the issue of curbing the number of criminal citations handed out in schools. But the bill died in the House when the session ended. Its sponsor plans to bring it up again when the legislature reconvenes.
GWEN IFILL: You can go online to find an interview with another parent who was cited for his son's actions at school and a look at penalties in other cities and states.
American Graduate is a media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.