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New State Law Could Impact Student Discipline

By Nathan Bernier, KUT News

Dallas, TX –

The new law applies to all school districts in Texas. Before it was passed, districts had the option of taking into account mitigating factors when a child got into trouble. Now school districts are required to consider things like: Did the child act in self-defense? Was there an intent to break to rules? Or does the student have a disability that affects his understanding of what he's doing?

Erica Terrazas: And we hope this breaks this whole kind of zero tolerance mindset with the schools.

Erica Terrazas is with Texas Appleseed, a public interest law center.

Terrazas: For example, we've had parents contact Texas Appleseed about how their child was defending him or herself and both kids were treated the same, but one kid was clearly acting in self-defense but discipline was applied equally and very harshly.

In some cases that discipline involves sending children to Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs - basically, reform schools run by counties. For years, critics have said some school districts are too quick to ship off students to those programs. Jodie Smith with the non-profit Texans Care for Children is pleased that schools will be required to consider mitigating factors.

Jodie Smith: As soon as a child has his or her first contact with the juvenile justice system, they are much more likely to remain system involved through the rest of their juvenile years, and then unfortunately into their adult years. So being able to deal effectively with problem behaviors in the school setting or in the home setting is critical, rather than criminalizing normal developmental adolescent behavior."

But some people think the new law won't make much of a difference. Rob D'Amico (duh-MEE-koe) is with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union in the U.S. He doesn't expect the new law have a big impact on the number of kids sent into the juvenile justice system.

Rob D'Amico: Most of the districts that have been looked at as possible problems for improper referrals already had these policies on the books, so the law itself is not going to make much of a difference, and we're hoping the legislation that didn't make it through last session can pass in 2011.

D'Amico says the Texas Education Agency (TEA) can investigate placements of students into Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs, but it doesn't. That's because TEA's budget to do that was cut in 2003. He would like to see that restored, along with more training for principals and administrators on the state law that governs student discipline.

Nathan Bernier, KUT News