Texas Senator Two-Steps on School Security and Discipline

You know Texas? Big state, couple of pro football teams, hints at seceding every once in awhile? Yeah, you’ve heard of it!

Here’s an interesting bit of Texas policy news that Youth Services Insider caught onto late in January: There are currently legislative efforts to increase the presence of police in schools, and to reduce the role that police play in school discipline.

Even more intriguing: both efforts are spearheaded by the same legislator, Democratic State Sen. John Whitmire.

While attending Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s conference on improving outcomes for at-risk youth last month, YSI was surprised when at one session, Michael Thompson of the Council of State Governments suggested to his audience that fighting cops in schools in the wake of Newtown might be a wasted effort.

“That ship’s sailed,” said Thompson, the director of CSG’s Justice Center. “There’s going to be a lot more police in schools, maybe not forever, but for the next three years.”

Thompson cited Texas as an example. The state that never passes a tax increase, he told the crowd, had just passed one to fund local law enforcement presence in schools.

That is only partially true, at the moment. No law has been passed, but Whitmire did introduce the Texas School District Security Act along with fellow Sen. Tommy Williams and State Rep. Dan Huberty.

Were it to pass, the bill would “allow for dedicated sales tax (if available under the state cap), or a dedicated property tax specifically for crime control and enhanced security based on local school district votes and desires. The revenue generated from a local option School District Security Fund would be separate from all other district funding.”

Whitmire and his fellow authors announced the legislation the day after President Obama was inaugurated. Two weeks earlier, the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice that he chairs submitted a report to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst with a slew of recommendations on criminal justice policy.

Among those recommendations are:
1. The legislature should require training for teachers and campus law enforcement in behavior management techniques.
2. Set an age under which students may not be issued criminal citations.
3. Remove the option of misdemeanor ticketing for education code violations.
4. Grant more discretion to schools in zero tolerance policy (which we’re guessing means allowing schools not to use it at all? By definition, there can’t be discretion involved in the concept of zero tolerance).
5. Find a way to punish districts that have not complied with implementing truancy prevention programs.
The underlying goal of the recommendations is clear: Stop using criminal sanctions, and the police, to regulate disorderly conduct that the schools could handle.

The report also includes a summary of the testimony given by Lon Craft, legislative affairs director for the Texas Municipal Police Association.

“Craft stated that TMPA, which represents…1,000 campus police, was in favor o limiting the involvement of peace officers [sic] with students for violations of school codes of conduct. He stated that public safety and law and order should be the main focus of police on campus.”

When police in schools emerged as a potential part of Vice President Joe Biden’s proposals in response to the Newtown schools shooting, there was immediate concern voiced by juvenile justice advocates that police presence in schools leads to more reliance on police and courts to handle minor misbehavior in school.

So it is worth noting that Texas – a state with unsurpassed affection for weaponry and a recent history of policing school conduct – currently has a powerful state legislator with an interest in upping school police presence  and taking those police out of the discipline equation. And, the police seem to concur with that sentiment.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.