WASHINGTON -- School discipline reforms in Texas have helped reduce the number of students charged with crimes for misbehaving in school by as much as 80 percent in just one year, according to data released this month by the Texas Judicial Branch.
The reforms, two bills passed by the state legislature in 2013, address soaring numbers of students charged with crimes by school police officers, often for minor disciplinary infractions.
"We were seeing a huge number of kids who were getting tickets from school police officers for really low-level misbehavior that used to be handled with a trip to the principal's office," said Deborah Fowler, executive director of the youth advocacy group Texas Appleseed. "Things like chewing gum in class, falling asleep in class, and talking too loudly."
The charges come with a mandatory appearance in adult court. Punishment often includes a $500 fine.
"In Texas, all our juvenile Class C misdemeanor cases go to adult criminal courts. They do not go to juvenile court," Fowler told The Huffington Post. Because the students weren't charged with serious crimes, the state typically did not supply lawyers, and most pleaded guilty. "It's incredibly rare to see a child without counsel plead not guilty," said Fowler.
In 2013, the state legislature passed two bills: The first curbed tickets for students on school campuses for anything except traffic violations. The second eliminated two categories of offenses that were previously punishable with misdemeanor tickets: "disruption of class" and "disruption of transportation." Now, as long as a student is at his or her own school, they cannot receive a ticket for disrupting class.
During the 2013-2014 school year, the first year of the new rules, violations of the education code -- the two "disruption" offenses -- dropped nearly 83 percent, while ticketing for all other offenses in school, including disorderly conduct, fell by a total of 58 percent.
Meanwhile, many of the potential negative consequences that opponents of reform feared never came to pass, Fowler said. "There was a lot of fear that schools would be unsafe, and that you'd see a lot more kids arrested and charged with a higher-level offense because officers couldn't ticket anymore," said Fowler. "But that's not what we've seen. In 2014, the juvenile arrest rates continued to decline. We're just not seeing the negative impacts that people were so concerned about."
The push for the reforms created an unusual coalition of conservative groups and progressives. The right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation was active in pushing for the changes.
"What conservatives and liberals alike realized was that if we wanted to fix a problem, we needed to try something that would actually help to remedy it," said Derek Cohen, a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "The only people who benefited from the [Class C misdemeanor ticketing system] were the people who could actually issue [the tickets] and not have to worry about any more punishment," he said.
Cohen said the staggering drop in ticketing shows that while "misbehavior is still specific to the kid, how we handle that is specific to the administrator and the administrations. At the end of the day, the people whose decisions can really drive these numbers one way or another, I think they're seeing that there's a better way."
Even as advocates point to the effectiveness of the reforms, they say the state still has a major legal feature keeping students in the so called school-to-prison pipeline: In Texas, truancy is a crime.
In a report published this month by Texas Appleseed, Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, added his influential voice to a growing choir of advocates and legal scholars who say it's time for Texas to reconsider policies that criminalize absenteeism.
While truancy and attendance laws are meant to help keep kids in school, Hecht writes, they often have the opposite effect. "The theory is that the threat of punishment will incentivize attendance. But when almost 100,000 criminal truancy charges are brought each year against Texas schoolchildren, one has to think, this approach may not be working."
Like the school ticketing reforms, both Fowler and Cohen are looking to reform truancy policies, and reduce the number of students ticketed for Failure to Attend School violations. Last year, even as the disciplinary tickets dropped sharply, more than 63,000 students were charged with misdemeanors for missing school.