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Early Punishments Can Have Lasting Impact for Some Students

BRYAN, Texas | De’Angelo Rollins has many traits of a typical teenager — he’s shy, likes video games and is continuing to grow into his adult body.

Yet Rollins is also coping with a more unique adolescent challenge: a criminal record.

Two years ago, Rollins got into a fight at his middle school in Bryan, Texas, with a classmate that he says had been bullying him for months. The incident left the teen with a hefty punishment: a three-day suspension, a criminal Class C misdemeanor citation for disruption of class and a $350 fine.

“At the time I didn’t know what a citation was,” Rollins said.

After pleading no contest, the fine was reduced to $69, and a judge sentenced Rollins to 20 hours of community service, four months probation and attendance at a first-time offender program.

But Rollins is lucky in some ways. Under Texas state law, if he hadn’t taken care of the citation or the fine wasn’t paid, he could have been arrested when he turned 17.

The case is not uncommon, according to attorney Deborah Fowler, who recently authored a report on the issue for Texas Appleseed, a public interest law center in Austin.

“In fiscal year 2011 … 330,000 non-traffic Class C [citations] were handled in the municipal and justice of the peace courts for juveniles,” Fowler said.

And because Texas adjudicates less serious “classroom cases” in municipal and justice of the peace courts – rather than in juvenile courts that attach confidentiality protections to the proceedings – the punishment likely won’t stop there for Rollins.

He may have to list the conviction going forward on everything from college and job applications to the forms requesting a driver’s license with the state of Texas.

It’s all part of a sweeping zero tolerance movement in schools that Fowler says started in the last few decades and has created a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“A lot of people assume it was just after Columbine, but the reality is … it started earlier than that, and it was related to a lot of the fear around the rising rate of juvenile crime in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.” said Fowler.

Research has shown the earlier a student comes into contact with the justice system, the more likely they are to drop out of school, according to Fowler.

Federal scrutiny of the policies have caused many in the state to reconsider how to enforce the get-tough policies, including Houston Independent School District Police Chief Jimmy Dotson.

“I don’t think you need a sledgehammer to kill a gnat,” Dotson said.

The police chief says he wants to curb student citations going forward and that he plans to retrain officers on the best approaches for handling classroom misbehavior.

Elsewhere across the United States, similar debates are playing out as districts come to terms with how best to implement school discipline.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district, many activists have begun protesting what they see as a culture of criminalizing student tardiness.

Some students, who claimed traffic, late buses and oversleeping as reasons for tardiness or truancy, have been ticketed and summoned to court to pay fines that can exceed $250.

A data analysis by Center for Public Integrity showed that about 33,500 tickets were given to students between 2009 and 2011 in the Los Angeles Unified School District, an average of nearly 30 tickets per day. 

The report examined a wide variety of citations given by the LAUSD police department to students between the ages of 10 and 18, for offenses such as disturbing the peace, jaywalking and possession of markers that could be used for graffiti.

More than 40 percent of the tickets were given to students 14 and younger. And critics say the citations have unfairly targeted low-income, minority households. Susan Ferriss of the Center for Public Integrity reported, “the areas where student ticketing is heaviest corresponds to neighborhoods where Los Angeles’ dropout rates have been highest.” 

From this data, Southern California Public Radio‘s Vanessa Romo and Andrew Wang mapped which middle schools in Los Angeles had the greatest number of tickets: 

Los Angeles District police officials have thus far declined to stop student ticketing, but say they are in discussions about reforms.

Similar discussions over reforming student discipline have begun in Colorado and Connecticut.

A version of this report will appear on Tuesday’s NewsHour.