By Sarah Guidry
Interim Executive Director
Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy
Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University
I recently found out that back in the late 1800s, my paternal great grandfather purchased land and built a school for the education of his children and grandchildren. I recall hearing my father talk about how his grandfather had volumes of Shakespeare on his book shelves that contributed to my father’s yearning to learn. As a child, not a single day passed without my parents and grandparents “preaching” the importance of education. As parents and grandparents of African American children, they knew, as I do, that education is a way to a better life. Education improves key aspects of life including financial, social, familial, and spiritual. Education is power!
My forbearers would never have envisioned today’s educational system that routinely criminalizes our children and closes the doors of opportunity. Students are pushed towards lifelong involvement in the criminal justice system when they are ticketed for relatively minor disciplinary issues. This phenomenon is now widely referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy, Inc. (ECI), is a research, writing, and advocacy think tank, affiliated with the Thurgood Marshall School of Law on the campus of Texas Southern University, a historically black university. The institute is one of the few organizations providing legal representation to students in school ticketing cases.
We frequently represent children in cases we consider particularly egregious; which brings to mind the story of a student we’ll call Mick. Mick retained the ECI Juvenile Justice Project to represent him in a school ticket case. Mick has ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which most often manifests through difficulty with social interaction, and repetitive and restricted patterns of behavior. Mick has an issue with elopement. That’s when a student leaves a permissible area of containment and enters onto another part of the school grounds unsupervised or without permission.
Mick was issued a ticket for trespassing on school grounds after he eloped from his Behavior Support classroom. Mick’s Individual Education Program specifically requires that his emergency contact (in this case, his mother) be notified immediately if Mick elopes, before involving the police. Multiple school personnel followed Mick around the campus for two hours; never once notifying his mother. One of the principals finally suspended Mick to have an excuse to call police. School policy holds that the only lawful place a suspended student may physically “wait” is in the front office. If the student leaves that area or refuses to go to the office, the school may call the police to arrest the student for “trespass.” Only after six squad cars arrived on scene, and Mick was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a squad car, was Mick’s mother notified of the situation. This was Mick’s third ticket for behavior related to his disability.
ECI was ultimately able to get Mick’s case dismissed. Mick potentially could have had three criminal misdemeanor convictions against him, all by the age of 12, possibly affecting his dream of going to college to earn a degree in computer science and becoming a gaming designer.
Other cases have included a student:
* With anxiety disorder ticketed for disruption of class for singing the ABC song which calms him;
* Overheard saying a curse word in the hallway that was ticketed for disruption of class/profanity;
* With Asperger’s Syndrome who was ticketed for assault when he brushed past a substitute teacher to leave the classroom and walk a certain hallway. He was following his school behavior plan for when he starts to have a meltdown;
* Who was bullied, including being held down and beaten. After the third bullying incident when he’s had enough and tries to defend himself, he is ticketed for disruption of school by affraying (fighting)
* Who, at age 17 and in the ninth grade, was told to withdraw from school and get a GED despite his low grade functioning (4th grade level) and in violation of the school’s duty under federal law to supply services that will allow him to be successful in school. He then was slapped with truancy fines and the court issued warrants for unpaid fines even though the student only receives social security disability benefits and could not pay.
ECI believes that the school ticketing issue should be of particular concern to the African American community. According to a report issued by Texas Appleseed, 97 percent of school tickets are discretionary (meaning the school does not have to issue the ticket). Moreover, young African Americans receive a disproportionate number of these tickets. In some school districts, African Americans are ticketed at a rate double their percentage of the school population.
We cannot afford to stand back and watch the efforts of our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents eroded by a school system that would rather send children to jail than to college. If you need help fighting this up-hill battle, please contact the Earl Carl Institute at 713.313.1139 or visit our website at www.earlcarlinstitute.org for more information.