By Kirsten Bokenkamp
When I was a kid, a student caught chewing gum in class, or throwing a paper airplane across the classroom got a reminder from the teacher to stop disrupting class, or was maybe sent to the principal’s office for a lecture about proper behavior. But never did any of my classmates ever get slapped with a Class C Misdemeanor for our misbehavior at school. Today, this is no longer the case. Some kids, before they are old enough to understand what it means to have a criminal record, are dealing with court dates and judges. And their families, who are often barely making ends meet, are blasted with harsh fines. Wonder which kids are ticketed? Statistically, children of color and special education students are disciplined at much higher rates than their peers. Not quite fair, or smart. Once a child is ticketed, their chance of dropping out of school and ending up in jail increases.
This week, the ACLU of Texas launched its Youth Rights Campaign, and student ticketing, part of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is one of our major priorities. Youth misbehavior is a serious issue, but the way Texas schools are dealing with it isn’t the right answer. Youth need support, and it benefits society as a whole to keep kids in school and out of the criminal justice system. Our campaign calls for an end to these counterproductive discipline policies; instead, we call on Texas schools to implement evidence based behavior systems that have been shown to create a more positive school environment,
That’s not the only issue Texas youth are facing. Our Youth Rights Campaign also works to ensure equality for all Texas children. Unfortunately, students often face bullying, harassment, and discrimination because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, these students do not feel safe at what should always be a safe place – school. Our campaign calls on school administrators to be more aware of and responsive to allegations of bullying, harassment, and discrimination at school and to ensure students are treated with equality and dignity that all humans are entitled to.
The last issue that the ACLU of Texas Youth Rights Campaign focuses on is the placement of juveniles in solitary confinement. Children, some as young as 14, who are certified to stand trial as an adult may be held in solitary confinement before they even have their day in court. Many are found innocent, yet have spent a year or more of their young lives in solitary confinement. Far from rehabilitative, this treatment is inhumane and leads to severe psychological distress and damage in adults; it is unconscionable that children are subjected to this abuse. In addition to suffering extreme mental anguish, these children are also denied the opportunity to participate in religious services and school, and our counties waste scarce tax dollars on costly segregation schemes.
How does our campaign work? To be successful, we are reaching out to students, parents, teachers, and community members at the local level throughout Texas. We are depending on the involvement of people who care about the wellbeing of their communities, who see the challenges and injustices that youth are facing, and who want to make Texas a safer and more productive state for everybody. In fact, to be successful, we need you. Texas’ youth needs you too. To learn more about our Youth Rights Campaign, visit www.youthrightstx.org. To learn more about the ACLU of Texas, visit www.aclutx.org.