SPRING, TEX. — In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.
“Guilty,” the boy’s mother heard him say.
He had been part of a scuffle on a school bus.
In another generation, he might have received only a scolding from the principal or a period of detention. But an array of get-tough policies in U.S. schools in the past two decades has brought many students into contact with police and courts — part of a trend some experts call the criminalization of student discipline.
Now, such practices are under scrutiny nationally. Federal officials want to limit punishments that push students from the classroom to courtroom, and a growing number of state and local leaders are raising similar concerns.
In Texas, the specter of harsh discipline has been especially clear.
Here, police issue tickets: Class C misdemeanor citations for offensive language, class disruption, schoolyard fights. Thousands of students land in court, with fines of up to $500. Students with outstanding tickets may be arrested after age 17.
Texas also stands out for opening up millions of student records to a landmark study of discipline, released in July . The study shows that 6 in 10 students were suspended or expelled at least once from seventh grade on. After their first suspension, they were nearly three times more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system the next year, compared with students with no such disciplinary referrals.
Citing the Texas research, federal officials announced last month an initiative to break what many call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” S uspensions, expulsions and arrests are used too often to enforce school order, officials said.
“That is something that clearly has to stop,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington alongside Education Secretary Arne Duncan .
This month, Duncan recounted that in his old job as Chicago schools chief, he was stunned to learn that so many arrests occurred in schools. The first response to student misbehavior, he said, “can’t be to pick up the phone and call 911.”
The federal focus comes amid other change. In Colorado, a legislative task force is examining discipline practices including law enforcement referrals and school ticketing. Los Angeles police recently agreed to cut back on ticketing tardy students en route to school.
Connecticut officials have begun screening cases after students wound up in court on violations such as for having soda , running in the hall and dressing improperly. “It’s not that we don’t think these things should be handled,” said William Carbone, the state’s executive director of court support services. “We just think they should be handled in the school rather than the court.”
Research shows that students who have been arrested or appeared in court are more likely to drop out of high school, said Gary Sweeten, an Arizona State University criminologist. Dropouts, in turn, are more likely than graduates to be incarcerated or unemployed.
The suburban Houston courtroom was packed with students, parents and siblings. Justice of the Peace Judge J. Kent Adams spoke of the importance of consequences, the duties of parents and the reality of being ticketed.
The fourth-grader who tussled on the bus was 10. After his appearance, his mother, Kimberly Smith, questioned whether her son belonged in court.
“I’m all for consequences, but I think it could have been handled another way,” she said. She had no chance to mention her son’s attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar disorder, she said.
The child was ordered to do eight hours of community service and take classes in anger management and decision-making, at a cost of $370, Smith said. “I’m a single parent,” she said. “Four hundred dollars? I have two other boys.”
It is hard to pinpoint the beginning of ticketing in Texas, but advocates say it expanded during the 1990s as many school systems started police forces and as zero-tolerance policies proliferated .
Texas is not alone in school-based ticketing, which occurs in several other states. In the Washington area, where Fairfax County has reexamined discipline policies in the aftermath of a student athlete’s suicide , school and police officials report no such ticketing practices.
In Texas, many question whether ticketing went too far.
In Houston one recent day, a 17-year-old was in court after he and his girlfriend poured milk on each other. “She was mad at me because I broke up with her,” he said.
Student Precilla Sanchez, 15, said most of her friends “have one ticket or more.”
“You got to a point where police were writing tickets for things that were not appropriate,” said Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators . He said the association supports police in schools but wants more emphasis on helping students rather than sending them to court.
Debate over ticketing heated up in January after a 200-page report from Texas Appleseed , a public interest law center, documented 275,000 juvenile tickets in fiscal 2009, including 120,000 for truancy. The statewide data did not separate school tickets from those issued in other settings.
But the report’s data from 22 Texas school districts showed ticketing rates that ranged from less than 1 percent of students in Pasadena to 11 percent in Galveston.
“It really defied common sense,” said Deborah Fowler, the report’s lead author, who found tickets issued to students as young as 5.
The study also found that as school police staff grew, often so did ticketing. In Austin, for example, district police staff rose 31 percent over six years as ticketing climbed 50 percent.
“More misbehaving students are being bumped into the court system nationally, and the main reason is the increasing presence of police in schools,” said Paul Hirschfield, a Rutgers University sociologist.
Parents in Texas complain that tickets are written up too easily and that authorities overlook whether students have disabilities or are acting in self-defense.
Lawyer Yvonne Q. Taylor, who works for a juvenile justice project at Texas Southern University’s Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy, said her experience bears out a finding of the ticketing report: Racial disparities are common.
In Dallas, where 30 percent of students are African American, 62 percent of those ticketed are black, the report said. In the Houston area, Taylor said, “I rarely see a white face in the courtroom.”
One of her recent cases involved Yiovani Williams, the son of a police detective. The 15-year-old said he talked back to an English teacher after she repeatedly said he could not use the restroom. The teacher accused him of cursing, which he denied. He was ticketed for disorderly conduct and suspended for a day.
His parents, Racquel and Willie Williams, said they were stunned such an incident could be considered criminal. Earlier, their older son had been ticketed after a classroom incident.
“We have worked so hard to keep our children out of the same court system they put them into so easily,” Willie Williams said. “For something as minor as this, he has to be criminalized?”
Still, ticketing has supporters.
Ken Knippel, an assistant superintendent of the Aldine Independent School District, with 62,000 students and 39 police officers, said a ticket is one of many responses to an infraction. “Should it be used to modify all behavior? No,” he said. “Are there times when it is appropriate? Yes, there are.”
Gregg Anderson, president of the Texas Association of School Resource Officers, said that tickets don’t get written every day or for every offense but that when a problem is repeated or severe, “it’s another tool in our belt.” Some police officers ticket more than others, he said, noting that he supervised a middle school with perhaps 10 tickets all year.
Ticketed students can’t just mail in a fine, as drivers could with a traffic ticket. In Texas, they must appear with a parent in an adult court — in a municipal court or before a justice of the peace.
At a recent court date, parent Avril Jenkins was leaning toward paying a $165 fine rather than higher costs for a deferred disposition program that included classes.
“I’d still get into college with that, right?” asked her worried 16-year-old daughter.
The question of criminal records is complex. A new law seals court records once misdemeanor judgments are satisfied. Paperwork also can be filed to expunge records at age 18 for one-time offenders.
How much such issues matter in college applications depends on the offense and a student’s overall record and explanation, admissions officers said.
In downtown Houston, Municipal Court Judge David Fraga sees perhaps 150 juvenile ticketing cases a day during the school year, about half of them school-related. In his court, punishments include community service and behavior-related workshops, and many offenders are able to avoid fines. The idea is, he said, “to learn, to make good choices.”
But others ask: Why are minor offenses here at all?
“It’s oftentimes dumb teenage behavior, which most of us did at one time or another,” said state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston). In the spring, Texas lawmakers passed legislation to scale back ticketing for younger children and truancy cases.
Janell Blackburn, who was in Fraga’s court after her teen daughter and an ex-boyfriend had argued and bumped each other, said ticketing should be ended for all but the most severe offenses.
“It’s almost like when they gave the school districts the right to have the police officers there,” she said, “and they gave them the tablets of tickets, they started writing it all up.”
For the students, she said, “it’s turning them against the school itself. They don’t want to go back there.”