Civil rights advocates have long worked to limit harmful school discipline practices that exclude children from quality educational environments. Suspensions, expulsions and disciplinary assignments to alternative schools have devastating consequences on students, reducing their chances of graduating and making it more likely that they will become involved in juvenile or criminal courts. Now another trend threatens to expand this “School to Prison Pipeline.” In addition to exclusionary discipline policies, many schools across the country are becoming increasingly dependent on law enforcement officers to punish students for minor misbehavior.
One stark example is the Bryan Independent School District (“Bryan ISD”), a mid-sized school district in central Texas. Like many school districts across the country, Bryan ISD contracts with its local police department to station police officers in each of its middle and high schools. These officers, known as “School Resource Officers” (“SROs”), have the same powers as any other police officer, including the ability to issue criminal citations to students for criminal acts that threaten school safety. But in Bryan ISD and many other school districts, SROs have not focused on school safety; instead, they often serve as the “disciplinary arm” of schools, needlessly criminalizing students for minor misbehavior.
SROs in Bryan routinely issue “Class C” criminal misdemeanor tickets to students as a standard mode of discipline. Each year, well over half of these tickets are issued not for dangerous or criminal acts that pose a threat to the school or community, but for the kind of school-based behavior that should instead be handled by an internal school discipline system. For example, most of the tickets issues in the 2011-12 school year were for “Disruption of Class” or “Disorderly Conduct-Language” (essentially, using cuss words). In Texas, such ticketing can mean missed class time due to required appearances in adult justice of the peace or municipal courts, fines, and the potential for a criminal record in addition to any other school-based punishment – creating a pipeline from schools to prison.
This ticketing practice also results in significant racial disparities. While African-American students comprise less than 25% of the students in Bryan public schools, they are significantly more likely to receive misdemeanor tickets than their peers. Over the last three school years, African-American students received more than half of all tickets issued—and are four times more likely to receive a ticket for “Disruption of Class” or “Disorderly Conduct-Language” compared to other students.
In response to Bryan ISD’s ticketing practice and the resulting pattern of discrimination, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“LDF”) and the National Center for Youth Law filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of impacted students and two local organizations – Texas Appleseed and the Brazos County branch of the NAACP. The complaint outlines a historical and continuing discriminatory pattern of issuing criminal tickets to students for minor misbehavior and also points to a host of less discriminatory alternatives that are proven to be more effective for promoting a positive and safe school climate.
The Byran ISD Complaint marks the latest effort in LDF’s “Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline” initiative . With expertise in both education and criminal justice, LDF staff members engage in strategic legal advocacy on school discipline issues, designed to replace punitive approaches to school discipline with policies that reduce reliance on exclusion, eliminate racial disparities and improve academic achievement. Through legislative advocacy and public education efforts, LDF provides key information on the harms of exclusionary discipline and police activity in schools . LDF also provides leadership in several national coalitions to reform school discipline, including the Dignity in Schools Campaign  and the School-to-Prison Pipeline Legal Strategies Collaborative.