Texas laws decreased number of student prosecutions

Associated Press

AUSTIN — Two Texas laws meant to prevent students from being prosecuted in adult court for minor infractions like disrupting a classroom are working as intended, court records show.

Since the statutes were passed last year, there’s been an 83 percent decline in the number of students going to adult court. The laws, written to encourage schools to handle most behavior problems instead of relying on police or the courts, have kept almost 90,000 juvenile cases out of adult court, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

State lawmakers and criminal justice advocates say it’s early evidence the laws are reducing the number of students saddled with criminal records for relatively minor school offenses.

David Slayton, director of the state Office of Court Administration, said the organization was expecting a drop in numbers, but not such a significant one in the first year. Two Texas House committees were told about the findings Wednesday.

The laws bar police officers from writing tickets for Class C misdemeanors that occur on school grounds, but exempt traffic violations.

Officers also can’t issue citations for school offenses such as causing trouble in class or on a school bus.

“We have seen major success as a result of the passage of these bills,” said Mary Schmid Mergler with Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy group. “School discipline had increasingly moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse, and misbehavior that used to mean a trip to the principal’s office was landing children in court and resulting in criminal convictions.”

But Lampasas school district superintendent Randy Hoyer said the 2013 laws have taken away an option to keep campuses safe and orderly.

He said he was concerned that students would start figuring out there’s no criminal consequence to disruptive behavior, such as bringing tobacco, alcohol or drug paraphernalia to school.

Mergler said the new laws merely ban officers from writing tickets, but that students can still be charged with a Class C misdemeanor in a sworn complaint.

The complaint must include a written offense report, witness statements, a victim statement, and if possible, a statement about steps the school took before turning to the criminal justice system.

It’s a somewhat cumbersome process, but it’s meant to encourage a more thoughtful use of the court system, Mergler said.