Reluctant to label students as “criminals,” Dallas school officials are trying to clear the records of hundreds of public-school pupils ticketed last year by police officers for minor discipline problems.
In addition, Marvin Edwards, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, has ordered the principals of the city’s 188 schools to cut back on calls to police for such minor student offenses as disrupting a classroom.
“The superintendent has told principals that disciplinary problems in school should be handled by teachers or administrators whenever possible,” said Rodney Davis, a spokesman for the district.
School-board members for the district called for a study last spring after learning that principals were calling in police to deal with students accused of minor offenses.
Board members first learned of the practice from news reports that chronicled the plight of one high-school student and his parents, who face $200 in fines for what the student describes as merely “laughing boisterously in class.”
The board study, conducted by district safety officials, revealed that 1,117 tickets were issued to students during the 1988-89 school year. The tickets called for fines ranging from $25 to $200.
Police reports show, however, that 1,365 tickets were issued, the difference attributable to the fact that police are not required to notify school officials about infractions.
‘Damage’ to Students Cited
At a meeting last month, school-board members decided that the practice of calling in police was indiscriminate and arbitrary.
“They felt it was the result of a breakdown in communication between school-board members and principals,” Mr. Davis said.
Still, noted Mary Rutledge, president of the Dallas school board, the board supported the use of police for serious violations in schools.
“Getting a ticket for talking in class is one thing, but when a student continually disrupts the class for a long period of time, that’s another issue,” she said.
Mr. Davis also said the superintendent met with police officials last month to discuss his concerns that police are inconsistent in ticketing. For example, Mr. Davis said, one schoolyard fight might result in a ticket for a misdemeanor assault charge, while another might garner a lesser disruption charge, or no penalty at all.
Mr. Davis said the superintendent asked police to refer students charged with minor offenses to school officials.
The board also asked school officials last month to look into expunging the records of students charged with less-serious violations last year, such as disrupting class and disorderly conduct.
“Some board members were concerned about labeling those stu8dents as criminals,” Mr. Davis added. “The board felt those students had been damaged, and they needed to be made whole again.”
Clearing the students’ records, however, would not prevent them from having to pay the fines, he said.
Ben Niedecken, the district’s legal counsel, said he was reviewing the cases to determine which students’ records might be expunged.
He pointed out that the records of students under age 17 would most likely be closed by the court in any case. But three such citations would earn a distinction as a “special-needs student.”
Mr. Niedecken said, however, that he was confident that juvenile-court officials would consider clearing the records of both minors and adults in this case.
‘An Effective Deterrent?’
Teachers also defend the practice, saying the threat of a fine is an effective deterrent for many unruly students.
“Teachers I’ve talked to have been very positive about having every possible option to try to clean up schools,” said Bob Baker, president of the Classroom Teachers of Dallas. “It’s one tool they can use if students get out of hand.”
Mr. Baker is a member of a district committee that is developing a school-security plan that will most likely call for the use of security guards on all campuses, and may include increased use of police.
But he also said the district should attempt to offer more specific guidelines on when it is appropriate for police to be called into schools.
The use of police in schools is not directed specifically by policy, Mr. Davis noted. But the discipline code that has been in place since the 1970’s--when the district was given a court-ordered school-management plan--allows school personnel to call police into schools.
Currently, a police officer and a school security guard are stationed at 21 Youth Action Centers throughout the district to patrol the 188 schools, and to be called in as needed.
Assault Most Common
According to the school board report, 40 percent of the 1,117 tickets issued were for assault. More than 26 percent were for disorderly conduct, 13 percent were for disrupting classes, 13 percent were for loitering or trespassing by outsiders, and 7 percent were for miscellaneous offenses, such as theft and possession of fireworks.
Most of the tickets--71 percent--were issued to males, except in middle schools, where 125 girls and 33 boys were ticketed.
Older students were ticketed most often, but 24 tickets were given to elementary-school children. Of those, 12 were for assaults.
Of those ticketed, 66 percent were black, 26 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were white, and 1 percent were issued to Asians and other minorities.