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Getting in trouble in school usually means going to the principal's office, getting a stern lecture, then maybe a phone call to parents. In Texas, though, students are more likely to end up in adult court facing misdemeanor charges. Study after study has shown that schools' disciplinary policies there have put lots of kids on the path to dropping out or worse, incarceration.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the numbers are so worrisome, some school districts are having to rethink how they discipline students.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: With his black robe securely zipped, Judge David Fraga walks from his small cluttered office down the hall past a couple of security guards to his courtroom in municipal court in downtown Houston.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All rise. Have a seat. The Honorable Judge Fraga presiding.

SANCHEZ: Fraga's docket today is unusually small.

DAVID FRAGA: Right now, it's probably, per night between 45 to 65. I suspect probably when school's in full bloom, I'll probably have between 125 to 150.

SANCHEZ: Fraga isn't talking about his regular clientele, adults ticketed for DUI or suspended licenses. He's talking about kids who've been ticketed by school police for fighting, disrupting class, profanity, all Class C misdemeanors. In other words, the equivalent of crimes like insurance fraud and criminal mischief.

FRAGA: Zavala?

SANCHEZ: This is Erlin Zavala's second court appearance for skipping school.

FRAGA: You also attended academy? That's yes, right? OK. Let me see if I can get a hold of a prosecutor and we'll talk...

SANCHEZ: The gangly 13-year-old with jet black hair combed back with gel listens quietly, his tired-looking mom at his side. Judge Fraga, a true believer in second chances, won't decide Erlin's fate today, but he usually recommends community service just to keep kids' mistakes from becoming part of their permanent record.

FRAGA: I mean, you've got to show these young people that there's hope.

SANCHEZ: But why does a kid who has skipped school end up here in a courtroom? Well, beginning in the mid-1990s, most states adopted rigid zero tolerance policies in response to school shootings and gang violence. But schools in Texas went farther, to include things like truancy, tardiness, dress code violations and profanity.

Deborah Fowler, legal director for Texas Appleseed, a public interest law firm, says schools criminalize kids' misdeeds no matter how small.

DEBORAH FOWLER: What we are seeing now are hundreds of thousands of Class C misdemeanor tickets being issued to juveniles in Texas being processed through what is really an adult criminal justice court system.

SANCHEZ: This summer, an exhaustive study by the Council of State Governments found that by 12th grade, over half of all 14- to 15-year-olds in Texas are ticketed, expelled or suspended at least once. After they're ticketed, gone to court and even paid hundreds of dollars in fines, students aren't always allowed to go back to their home school. They're sent to an alternative school, a holding pen of sorts, where kids are supposed to learn their lesson.

THOMESHA TURNER: I was making all As before I came here.

SANCHEZ: Thomesha Turner, 18, is a senior in the Waco Independent School District. She's a good student and had never been in trouble until she had a verbal altercation with a teacher.

TURNER: She started getting in my face, putting her finger in my face, calling me a little girl. And I told her to get out of my face because I wasn't a little girl and I said: Miss, you will get out of my face or I'll beat your bitch ass up. There's a different way I could have handled it, but I didn't handle it in a more mature way.

SANCHEZ: Next to Thomesha is 12-year-old Danielle Delgado, a diminutive girl with a hair-trigger temper. She's here for fighting with another student.

DANIELLE DELGADO: She told me I have some big feet. I said, you got a big face. She swung, but she missed and so that's when we started fighting in the hallway.

SANCHEZ: Danielle has been suspended three times. The first time she was here, she was only eight and in third grade. Here at Waco's only alternative school, uniforms are mandatory. So is absolute obedience and compliance with the rules.

Seventy students are referred to this school every day and they're all expected to change for the better. But the more these kids open up, the more it becomes apparent that their behavior has a lot to do with the turmoil in their young lives.

KAREN MCPHETRIDGE: I was in foster care since I was, like, three.

SANCHEZ: Karen McPhetridge is 14.

MCPHETRIDGE: Then I got back with my mom, like, three years ago and then my dad abandoned me. So, I've been angry with him and I've been angry with my sister because as soon as she graduated, she became a stripper and now she's, like, all strung out on drugs now.

SANCHEZ: Karen was expelled for smoking marijuana on school grounds. Whatever trouble these kids have gotten into, schools up to now have no way to deal with the root causes of kids' bad behavior. Neglect, abuse, family problems, issues that students bring to school every day.

Saul Cornejo is 16.

SAUL CORNEJO: Teachers at school, they don't understand it. They just dismiss you and put you off instead of like, really trying to get to the real problem, which most of the time originates at home and stuff.

SANCHEZ: Saul has been suspended several times for fighting. He lives with his older brother, but is pretty much on his own. His principal says he's really bright, but Saul is also facing felony charges for burglary and won't be allowed to return to his home school.

All too often, schools give up on kids like Saul, says John Hudson. He's director of attendance, truancy and dropout recovery in Waco.

JOHN HUDSON: And when you look at the numbers of times students are disciplined in school, suspended, separated from school, placed in disciplinary alternative education placement, the unintended consequence is that their education suffers to the point where it puts them farther and farther away from graduating.

SANCHEZ: Hudson says it's proof that schools' disciplinary policies are not working. That seems to be the growing consensus in Texas, but it's going to take a lot of work to undo the damage.

Last year and the year before that, Waco, for example, had the second highest suspension and expulsion rates in Texas. Today, administrators and teachers are trying to turn that around by being less punitive. The district has even started a tiny pilot program that teaches parents how to help their kids control their behavior.

For Danielle, Thomesha and Karen, though, it may be too late. They say they feel labeled and stigmatized.

MCPHETRIDGE: This will go on my record and it worries me. Like, what kind of colleges would want to accept someone who is put in alternative school?

TURNER: When they see alternative on your background, they look at you different because they're like, alternative, that's for bad kids.

SANCHEZ: Already a mother of two with another child on the way, Thomesha is determined to graduate next spring. And Danielle?

DELGADO: I'm pretty sure I'll do fine. I'll be back here. I'm a bad child.

SANCHEZ: I'm a bad child, Danielle whispers, cupping her mouth in her small hands. Waco schools superintendent Bonnie Cain, who took over two years ago, says a few teachers and administrators may still think some kids will always be trouble. But from now on, says Cain, the district's disciplinary policy will assume that deep down, even the toughest students, can change and are worth rescuing.

BONNIE CAIN: Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, you know what, I'm going to make everybody mad today. I'm going to get expelled. We need to take that child where they are and work with them to get them on the right track because if we don't do it, who will?

SANCHEZ: With more state lawmakers now supporting this view, school districts in Texas are rethinking their disciplinary policies. Researchers hope Texas will be a model for other states to do the same.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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