Brandarion Thomas and his mother, Dorothy Lawrence PHOTO BY FORREST WILDER “Where it’s subjective, the BLACK CHILDREN are punished more.” SEE Forrest Wilder’s illustrated post about Turner Industries at txlo.com/turner is 30 to 40 days, long enough for many at-risk students to fall behind or drop out altogether. Even one disciplinary referral can greatly increase the chance that a youth will become entangled in the justice system. The single best predictor of future involvement in the juvenile justice system is a history of disciplinary referrals at school, according to a 2005 study by Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute. Sometimes, with the growing presence of cops in schools, the route from school to court is very short. On a Tuesday night in April, dozens of teens and their parents -almost all black and Hispanicwait patiently in a courtroom at Austin’s municipal court. It’s one of two nights each week that judges hear cases stemming from Class C misdemeanor tickets written by campus cops mostly for disorderly conduct, disrupting class and violations of curfew. Thousands of such tickets are written every year. One recipient was Jacqueline Acosta, a 15-year-old student at Austin’s Alternative Learning Center. In March, she cussed out a boy who was making sexually suggestive comments to her and was ticketed by a school cop for “Disorderly Conduct-Abusive Language.” At the court, prosecutors offer Acosta a deal: Stay out of trouble for three months, perform four hours of community service and attend Teen Court-a program in which teenagers act as jury, prosecutor and defense attorney, dispensing community service and jury duty as punishment-and the charges will be dismissed. In Austin, convictions are rare because prosecutors almost always offer dismissal deals. But in other jurisdictions, tickets often result in fines up to $500, plus court costs, and criminal convictions that can stay on records forever. Often the tickets go unpaid, and when teens turn 17, warrants can be issued for their arrest. For poor students that often means having to “sit out” the ticket in jail for a few days. In 1989, just seven districts in Texas had an oncampus police department. Today, almost 200 do. “You put cops in schools, and guess what?” Rodriguez says. “Cops arrest. Meter maids write tickets; teachers teach; and cops arrest.” In Katy ISD alone, campus cops made 69 arrests for “indecency with a child” between August 2001 and May 2007, including six 12-year-olds. “The schools just don’t see it as their job anymore to care for kids that misbehave,” says David Gonzalez, an Austin attorney who represents parents and children in school discipline matters. “That’s the juvenile justice system’s job now. It’s a big change. Twenty years ago, even 15 years ago, there was this notion of going to the principal’s officemaybe getting a lick or talking things out.” THOUGH RESEARCHERS can pinpoint widespread racial disparities in school discipline, it’s tough to investigate individual cases. Federal law protects student disciplinary records, and districts won’t speak about individual students. In Paris, an East Texas town of 26,000 that is 73 percent white and 22 percent African-American, getting a clear picture is complicated by tense race relationsprecipitated by a seemingly endless number of racially charged events. On one of the April days I visit, news breaks locally that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found that black employees at Turner Industries, a Paris pipe cornpany, have been harassed with nooses, Confederate flags, racist graffiti and death threats. Those who complained, including some white employees, were fired by management or ignored. The district denies that community turmoil penetrates Paris public schools and blames allegations of discrimination on a small group of activists like Cherry. “These are disgruntled persons that have made it their mission to harass the district,” wrote Dennis Eichelbaum, a Dallas attorney who represents the district, in an e-mail to the Observer. Several parents in Paris agreed to share their children’s records with the Observer. Shatajna Woods says that teachers and administrators labeled her son, DeAundre Black, a troublemaker in elementary school and subjected him to near-constant punishment for minor misbehavior. His thirdand fourth-grade records show that Black was written up on a near-daily basis for things like “being disrespectful [sic],” “acting silly,” “being obstinate,” and “disobeying.” When he was 8, Black was given swats for telling another child that he wanted to “have a baby” with a third student. Woods doesn’t deny that her son had problems in school. In third grade, he was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities, but she says the school delayed putting Black into a special education program. “I know here they think that a lot of the black parents aren’t concerned about their children,” Woods says. “That’s not true. That’s not so. I care for my son, and I want him to get fair treatment. … There were small problems that were blown out of proportion, things the teachers could have taken care of.” As the infractions mounted, Black bounced in and out of in-school suspension and the disciplinary alternative campus, records show. The situation became so hopeless that in 2005, Woods withdrew her son and moved to Dallas. In the new school, she says Black went from barely passing to making the A-B honor roll. “There was no chance of him succeeding” in Paris, she says. “He was set up for failure from the jump.” In response to persistent complaints from black parents, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened a review of Paris’ Crockett Middle School in 2003, one of the few reviews conducted nationally in the past decade. In 2005, the civil rights division released a report on Crockett that found a “significant statistical disparity” in the punishment of black children. For example, black students were eight times more likely to be punished for disrupting class than white children. The only category in which the Education Department didn’t find a racial disparity was tardiness. “If you’re tardy, you can’t deny it,” Cherry says. “But where it’s subjective, the black children are punished more.” The Office of Civil Rights then broadened its inves 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG
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