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BRANDARION THOMAS didn’t fit the stereotype of a sex offender. He was handsome, popular and 14 years old. But in June 2008, during summer school at Travis Junior High in Paris, a female classmate, also 14, accused him of grabbing her butt and crotch on four occasions in a classroom filled with other students. Thomas, who is black, denies touching his classmate, who is also black. According to a statement she gave police, the girlwhose name is being withheld at her mother’s requestasked Thomas to stop. When he didn’t, she complained to school authorities. Like many schools in the era of “zero tolerance” for discipline problems, Paris school officials turned to the justice system. Two campus police officers gathered witness statements, which generally supported the girl’s account, and referred the matter to the Lamar County district attorney. Four-and-a-half months later, at the end of October, Thomas was arrested at his house by Paris police and charged with four felony counts of sexual indecencywith a child. “I wasn’t really worried about myself because I knew that I didn’t do it,” Thomas says. “But my mama was stressing so much, I just felt sorry for her.” Dorothy Lawrence is no shrinking violet when it comes to disciplining her three kids. Thomas’ mother thought it appropriate when Brandarion, at 12, received a year of probation from the juvenile court and six weeks of alternative school for prank-calling 911 from the school bus. But she was horrified to learn that her son might face years in juvenile lockup and registration as a sex offender. “I didn’t know what they were going to do to him, him being so young,” she says. “I was just afraid, very afraid.” Lawrence contacted Brenda Cherry, a civil rights activist in Paris. Cherry had brought attention to the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old Paris girl who in 2006 was sentenced to up to seven years in the Texas Youth Commission for shoving a teacher’s aide. The judge in the case had sentenced a 14-yearold white girl convicted of arson to probation a few months earlier. Cherry views the Cotton and Thomas prosecutions as extreme examples of a larger pattern of racial discrimination in Paris public schools. “The black kids are punished more often, more harshly. I think they go to extremes; they punish them for little things,” she says. “A lot of times, they see a black kid as more menacing.” Though prosecutors offered a plea deal to Thomastwo years of probation in exchange for a guilty pleaCherry helped convince Lawrence to take the matter to trial in front of the same judge who heard the Cotton case. “It’s ridiculous,” Cherry says. “He was 14. You’re going to ruin his life because you can’t make him plead guilty?” In April 2009, on the morning of the trial, the defense attorney’s investigator again urged Lawrence to take the plea deal. “He told me, if I was you, I would tell him to go ahead and plead guilty,” says Lawrence. “I looked him in the eyes and said, I’m not going to do that. That’s when he told me if he loses, he’s facing two to 20 years.” IN FEBRUARY 1995, amid growing fear over juvenile crime and teen “superpredators,” newly inaugurated Gov. George W Bush called on the Texas Legislature to crack down. “We must adopt one policy for those who terrorize teachers or disrupt classroomszero tolerance,” he said. Bush called for a tougher, bigger juvenile justice systemmore juvenile-detention beds, “tough love academies” staffed by retired Marine drill sergeants, and harsher sentencing for juvenile offenders. The Legislature drafted a list of serious offenses, such as bringing a weapon or drugs to school, that trigger mandatory referral to “alternative” programs. “We just started to see a kind of law-and-order mentality instated in schools,” says Deborah Fowler, an attorney with Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit. Criticism of zero-tolerance policies has mostly focused on absurd instances of school administrators applying across-the-board bans. Reporters and activists trot out stories like that of the college-bound honor student at George Bush High School in Fort Bend County who was suspended and disciplined in 2008 after campus police found a prop theater sword in her car. Less attention has been paid to discretionary school discipline. In 1995, state legislators left the handling of “code of conduct” violationsgenerally minor misbehavior like talking back, disrupting class, or using profanityup to individual schools. Many Texas schools have used this power zealously. Even children in preK, kindergarten, and first grade are landing in alternative disciplinary schools for minor misbehavior. A new study by Texas Appleseed finds that 71 percent of all expulsions are discretionary. The hammer has fallen especially hard on minority students, especially African-Americans. Statewide, black students are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as Hispanic students and four times as likely as white students, according to 2006 Department of Education data, the most current available. Once students land in disciplinary programs, they can then be expelled to Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programsboot-camp-like centers where dropout rates soarfor “serious or persistent misbehavior,” a term that is undefined in state law. In 2007, black students in Dallas ISD were four times more likely than other students to be expelled to an alternative education program for “serious or persistent misbehavior.” In Galveston public schools, they were 20 times more likely, and in Temple, 54 times more likely. Yet data indicate that black students are no more prone to misbehave. For serious offenses, in which expulsion is mandatory and not up to schools, stu-. dents of all races are expelled at the same rate, according to the Texas Appleseed study. “Policymakers argue that the reason you see more African-American kids is because these are the kids that are doing all the bad stuff,” says Fowler. The mandatory expulsion data, she says, “really undercuts that argument.” The average length of stay at an alternative program BROWSE the Texas CI Appleseed reports at APRIL 30, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1 13