Abuse by Credit: The Problem of Coerced Debt in Texas

Introduction

Acknowledgements 

This report would not have been possible without contributions from the following experts:

  • Angela Littwin, Ronald D. Krist Professor of Law, University of Texas, Austin*
  • Krista DelGallo & Mona Muro, Texas Council on Family Violence
  • Carla Sanchez-Adams, Attorney, Board Certified in Consumer and Commercial law*

*views expressed are those of the contributors and not those of their affiliate institutions.

One in three adult Texans has experienced family violence.  In 2016, Texas family violence programs received 172,573 hotline calls, and in the following year, 136 Texas women were killed by intimate partners. Though domestic violence is commonly characterized by physical and emotional abuse, economic abuse has gained increasing recognition as a prevalent and serious mechanism of coercive control, control that entails a pattern of taking away a victim’s sense of self and freedom and that further entraps victims. One form of economic abuse is coerced debt: non-consensual debt incurred by an abuser in an abusive relationship. This coerced debt . Consumer reports play a growing role in our financial lives—involving everything from employment to housing to car loans—and bad credit too often means poor financial options for survivors of domestic abuse. In the first six months of 2018, nearly one in three Texans who called the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported economic or financial abuse.

Economic security is critical for survivors of domestic violence to break free from an abusive partner. Research shows that A primary reason women remain in abusive relationships is a lack of financial resources. based on callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline suggested that 73 percent of callers stayed longer in a relationship with someone who was controlling because of concerns about financially supporting themselves or their children. Survivors of domestic violence need tools to regain economic stability.

Meredith’s Story

When Meredith [name has been changed], a survivor of domestic violence, was married, her husband hid their financial information. A few times, Meredith heard him joke about her to his friends, saying, “I keep her around for her good credit.” After their divorce, she realized, to her horror, how true his statement had been. Her husband had run up thousands of dollars of credit card debt in her name. When her consumer report arrived in the mail, it was 1 ½ inches thick—this, for a person who had never even used a credit card before and was fastidious about saving her money. Meredith, newly divorced and trying to enroll in college, was faced with the prospect of owing an inconceivable amount of money. It was a big challenge to undo the damage to her credit and her financial life. As Meredith noted, “I went through hell.”

The Problem of Coerced Debt

The most recent major national survey of domestic violence found that at some point in their lives. Of the relationships where domestic violence was present, economic abuse occurred in 94 to 99 percent of them.

These statistics, along with the statistics from the 2007 Consumer Bankruptcy Project, speak to the connection between domestic violence and economic vulnerability. , 17.8 percent of females who were married or living with a partner at the time of bankruptcy filing had experienced domestic violence in the year before bankruptcy.

In a , 93 percent of domestic violence professionals reported having clients who experienced coerced debt. These domestic violence advocates on the impacts of coerced debt:

  • Bad credit “really impacts [my client’s] ability to stay safe.”   
  • Removing negative DV-related incidents from a client’s consumer report is “near impossible.”
  • “There needs to be some kind of way to rehabilitate credit.”
  • “Advancing measures that are beneficial for combating identity theft generally would have [a] huge benefit for combating domestic violence.”
  • “For the majority of the survivors in this country, they are the ones who ultimately bear the economic burden of the abuse.”
  • “Long after the bruises have healed, and they’ve dealt with the emotional part, they’re still trying to put their financial house back in order.”
  • “The relationship devastates them not only physically and emotionally, but also financially.”
  • “Part of the battering was complete control of the finances.”

Their testimony speaks for itself. Coerced debt is a significant problem with serious implications for survivors of domestic violence.

What is Coerced Debt?

Coerced debt happens when abusers use debt to control and harm their partners. Coerced debt is , credit-related transactions that occur in intimate relationships where In almost all cases of coerced debt, the . Because of the importance of credit in securing housing, employment, utilities, and loans, for domestic violence survivors to leave abusers and to build economic independence and resilience.

Coerced debt is identity theft that occurs within relationships. Physical assault that occurs against a partner is illegal in the same way as physical assault that occurs among strangers. Identity theft that occurs within relationships (i.e., coerced debt) should be recognized as the illegal activity it is in the same way as identity theft that occurs among strangers.  

Coerced debt also falls into the broader category of economic abuse. While traditional encompasses actions by abusive partners like stealing cash and interfering with a victim’s ability to work, in other cases, economic abuse is when an abuser “separates the victim from their own resources, rights and choices, isolating the victim financially and creating a forced dependency for the victim.”

In the first six months of 2018 alone, the National Domestic Violence Hotline documented 9,867 phone calls or online chat contacts from Texans experiencing domestic violence. Of these callers, 30 percent reported economic or financial abuse. These numbers hint at how widespread coerced debt is for vulnerable Texans.

The motivations of abusers using tactics of economic abuse vary. The most obvious reason why abusers create debt for a partner without the partner’s consent or is for their own economic gain. For an abuser, incurring coerced debt in the name of a victim can be a simple and direct way of gaining access to financial resources. However, research on coerced debt suggests that an . Whether as part of a larger structure of coercive control or as a deliberate way of rendering a victim unable to leave a relationship, coerced debt plays a significant role in relationships characterized by domestic violence.

Who is Affected by Coerced Debt?

Because of entrenched cultural shame and stigma associated with the topics of debt and domestic violence, coerced debt is rarely discussed in public. The topic of coerced debt is slowly gaining public attention as a result of recent studies and through tennis superstar Serena Williams, who declared it her personal mission to bring attention to the subject of economic abuse.

In a designed to better quantify the impacts of coerced debt on survivors of domestic violence, 52 percent of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline who participated in the survey reported coerced debt. When asked directly about coerced debt, over half the survey participants reported that they had partners who generated debt in their names via coercive or fraudulent transactions. Fraudulent transactions occur without the knowledge or consent of the victim, whereas with coerced transactions, the victim may know about the transaction and give coerced consent out of fear of harm.  Of callers who reported that they had experienced coerced debt, 17 percent said that the coerced debt resulted from fraudulent transactions only—transactions where the victim did not consent to the debts at the time they were incurred. Twenty-eight percent of these callers said that the coerced debt included both fraud and other coercive debt, while 55 percent, the majority of coerced debt victims, where consent was given  due to fear of harmful consequences.

Rates of Coercive and Fraudulent Debt

Texas-specific statistics from the National Domestic Violence Hotline from January to December of 2017 show that among callers, 27 percent self-articulated economic or financial abuse. That number increased to 30 percent in the first half of 2018. The Texas and national data, taken together, show that coerced debt is a problem impacting a substantial subset of domestic violence survivors.  

How Coerced Debt Comes About

There is no singular or formulaic way that coerced debt happens. In fact, the sheer number of ways that a domestic violence survivor can get saddled with coerced debt is staggering. One of the simpler scenarios is , using knowledge of a partner’s personal identifying information to open the account. The abusive partner can either incur the debt without the victim’s knowledge—an explicitly fraudulent transaction—or can coerce the victim into incurring the debt—a coercive transaction.

For fraudulent transactions, once debt has been incurred in the name of a domestic violence victim, it can be some time before the victim finds out about the debt. The majority of callers to the National Domestic Violence Hotline who reported explicitly fraudulent coerced debt reported that they .

The same study suggests that for coercive debt transactions, where the victim gives coerced consent to debts, abusive partners used threats of harm to coerce their partners into incurring debt. that abusers commonly used when threatening victims to comply with a command. Physical consequences include “threats of bodily harm.” Psychological consequences include “threats of emotionally distressing actions,” such as name calling, threats to reveal personal or embarrassing information, yelling and screaming, or threatening to end the relationship. And finally, economic consequences include “threats of the loss of financial and material resources.”

Types of Threats Used in Coercive Debt Transactions

The following scenarios capture some of the ways that coerced debt has been generated. While the scenarios are all based on the stories of actual people, all names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

  • An abusive partner uses physical duress to force a partner to apply for a credit card. Sylvia and Carlos were married with two children. Carlos frequently hit and belittled Sylvia. When a credit card offer came in the mail in Sylvia’s name, Carlos told her that she needed to sign to accept the offer and give him the card or he would hurt her. Sylvia felt she had no other option but to sign and give the card to Carlos, as she was scared he would hurt her or her kids.  
  • An abusive partner applies for and uses credit cards in a partner’s name without the partner’s knowledge. David and Alicia were dating for two years. During that time, David secretly opened up credit cards in Alicia’s name online, and maxed out several of the cards. He always checked the mail and never let Alicia know about any financial matters. Alicia finally decided to leave David. When Alicia tried to apply for a job, her application was denied after the employer conducted a background screening that included credit information. She looked at her consumer report online, and found out that there was over $30,000 in credit card debt in her name.
  • An abusive partner uses a partner’s identity to obtain a car loan. James and Maria were dating. When Maria was away visiting her family, James brought his sister to the car dealership with him. His sister pretended to be Maria, and signed a loan for a new car that James drove. James did not make the payments, and a collections company started calling Maria about missed payments. As a result of the missed car payments, Maria’s credit score plummeted.  
  • An abusive partner forges a partner’s signature on a home mortgage document to withdraw equity from a family home. Stephen and Melanie were married for 30 years, during which time Stephen was frequently abusive. Stephen forced Melanie to sign a home mortgage document and withdrew equity from the family home. He told her that she was “stupid”, that he knew what he was doing, and that Melanie should do what he told her, or he would hurt her. Because of his history of abuse, Melanie did what he forced her to do, and signed the documents. Later the bank foreclosed on the house, severely damaging Melanie’s credit and her economic security, leaving her vulnerable to homelessness.   

These stories are all different, yet they are united by the common thread that they each feature coerced debt—non-consensual debt that arose in the context of a relationship where coercive control was used to dominate and intimidate. Sylvia and Melanie, who were coerced to authorize debt, have no protections under current law. Under current Texas law, it is unlikely that Sylvia and Melanie qualify as victims of identity theft.  They are thus and are held responsible for the debt incurred by coercion. Yet, as all the stories show, individuals who have experienced coerced debt need strong legal supports to help them leave abusive relationships and regain their financial footing.

Coerced Debt in the Broader Credit Sphere

Texans are increasingly concerned that consumer reports incorrectly reflect a consumer’s risk profile. In 2017, the news of the Equifax data breach was made public. This breach impacted 143 million individuals nationwide and 12 million Texans, close to half of the US and Texas populations. The scandal brought new Congressional oversight to Equifax and the other Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs), and it increased the concern by ordinary Americans over the privacy of their data. Reflective of that concern is the high level of complaints received by oversight agencies.  For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) handled approximately 274,000 consumer reporting complaints from 2015 through mid-2018, with an increase in consumer reporting complaints from 2016 to 2017. Incorrect information made up 64 percent of all complaints received. Texas data show similar trends, with more than 28,000 complaints received by the CFPB over the same period and an even steeper increase in consumer reporting complaints from 2016 to 2017. In 2017, consumer reporting complaints made up 36 percent of all Texas complaints compared to 31 percent nationwide. The CFPB has taken several corrective measures in response to consumer complaints about the consumer reporting agencies, like fixing data accuracy and repairing broken dispute processes. However, the CFPB has declined to fully investigate the Equifax data breach.

Coerced debt, just like identity theft caused by data breaches, often leads to a consumer report that does not accurately reflect an individual’s true risk profile. An inaccurate consumer report can force people needing credit into exorbitantly priced subprime credit options, despite being credit-worthy, and create barriers to renting apartments and finding jobs.

The (FCRA) provides relief for a person when debt is reported inaccurately due to identity theft. In reality, however, for a person who is the victim of coerced debt to have this information blocked from a consumer report. If a domestic violence survivor has coerced debt that did not result from fraud, but rather coercion, such as with Sylvia profiled above, the survivor will not fit the usual scenario of a victim of identity theft.

A common assumption is that identity theft happens when a stranger—not an intimate partner—steals someone’s financial information. Among survivors and the public at large, it is also widely held that “” Alicia, profiled above, though clearly a victim of identity theft, may not be able to get a police report because she was married to her abuser at the time of identity theft crime.

Addressing Coerced Debt

There is a need to utilize more effectively the tools available to victims of coerced debt so that they may more easily regain economic security. Two important approaches to address the problem of coerced debt are to clarify that coerced debt falls clearly under identity theft and to utilize final protective orders under the Texas Family Code—protective orders designed to protect survivors of abuse—to support not only the physical security, but also the economic security, of survivors of domestic violence.

1. Coerced debt is a form of identity theft and victims should receive the same protections.

It is exceedingly difficult for people who have experienced coerced debt to remove this debt from their credit history. available to all victims is to add a 100 word personal statement to their consumer report. However, these statements do not alter the information in the consumer report itself. Even if a victim has added a statement explaining accounts in the report are coerced, the consumer report still factors in information from the coerced accounts. Creditors might disregard the personal statement altogether and may deny credit on the basis of account information that is reflective of domestic abuse rather than the true credit worthiness of a survivor of domestic violence.

Victims of coerced debt need clearer pathways to block coerced debt from being visible to potential creditors. In 2003, Congress passed the , an amendment to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). FACTA relies on law enforcement agencies to screen claims of identity theft. This law provides victims of identity theft who have documentation, most typically a police report, access to a series of useful protections that aim to ameliorate the negative consequences of credit damage. allow victims of identity theft to:

(a) place a fraud alert on their consumer reports by making a single telephone call to any of the three credit bureaus;

(b) place a 7-year fraud alert on their consumer reports by providing a written request accompanied by an identity theft report;

(c) get a free copy of their consumer reports annually from each of the three credit bureaus or two free copies annually when the consumer places an extended fraud alert;

(d) block fraudulent information from their consumer reports and be notified if a block is declined or rescinded;

(e) stop creditors and debt collectors from reporting fraudulent accounts to credit bureaus;

(f) dispute fraudulent or inaccurate items on their consumer reports;

(g) place a credit freeze; and

(h) obtain copies of records related to identity theft.

Currently, some victims of coerced debt, such as Sylvia and Melanie, described above, who complied with their abusers’ demands for fear of physical harm, cannot easily access these federal protections. In order to invoke the protections under FACTA, victims need to have filed a police report. If a victim does not meet the criminal definition of identity theft because of grey areas in the law, then the victim will have difficulty . A change in the law that clarifies that identity theft happens when there is a lack of effective consent would expand options for a victim of coerced debt to be declared a victim of identity theft under federal laws.

If coerced debt victims were able to claim the legal protections given to other victims of identity theft, it would make a specific and meaningful difference in the lives of survivors of domestic violence in Texas. For example, in the case of Sylvia, described above, a change to the Texas Penal Code definition of identity theft to include lack of effective consent, would enable her to successfully file a police report for . She could then use this identity theft report to access the protections under FACTA. One of these protections could be that the coerced debt is blocked from her consumer report.

With an accurate report reflecting Sylvia’s true credit risk, she can better work towards building economic stability.     

2. Protective orders should ensure the economic security of survivors.

Protective orders under the Texas Family Code were designed to promote greater safety for domestic violence survivors and other protected parties such as their children. In order to receive a civil protective order, that family violence has occurred and is likely to occur in the future. A protective order generally includes a finding of family violence and lists specific protections, which vary depending on the situation and what the judge is willing to include in the order.

Texas law does not include explicit provisions related to economic security, but it allows judges the discretion to include economic security provisions in civil protective orders.  Economic security protections could include features such as:

  • Requiring the respondent to turn over certain important identification and financial documents;
  • Ordering the abuser to refrain from accruing any new debts; and
  • Including an allocation of funds to previously accrued in the case of unmarried individuals.

When a protective order protects economic security, a domestic violence survivor is safer, better positioned to be financially independent, and less likely to return to an abusive partner.

Protective orders that address economic security would make a positive impact in the lives of victims of coerced debt. For example, Alicia, the survivor profiled above, could receive a protective order against her ex-boyfriend with specific provisions relating to her financial security and protection.  This order could include a directive that David may no longer incur any new debts on the credit cards he has opened in Alicia’s name. The protective order could also state that David must give Alicia her birth certificate and social security card, which he had kept hidden from her. Taken together, these provisions could go far towards equipping Alicia with the tools to regain her economic—as well as physical—security.

Conclusion

Coerced debt is a major barrier to the economic independence and well-being of survivors of domestic violence. The importance of good credit for securing the basic necessities of life makes addressing this problem a priority. Federal and state governments have a number of specific and practical steps they might take to address coerced debt. One approach would be to make it easier for an individual who has experience coerced debt to access identity theft protections. Another approach would be to encourage judges to include, in protective orders, appropriate provisions that directly address the economic security of survivors.

The increased prevalence of consumer debt and the increased use of the Internet to obtain credit has given abusers new mechanisms by which they can exert coercive control over partners. Expanding tools to address coerced debt is key to the long-term economic well-being of survivors of domestic violence.

Driven by Debt

Introduction

Julie’s license troubles started in 2011, when she got a ticket for letting her car insurance lapse. Despite being a single mother with tight finances, Julie got insurance and saved up to pay off the ticket in 2013. But in 2017, she was pulled over again. Julie was shocked when the officer told her that her license was not valid and had in fact been suspended for four years. Ironically, her paying the ticket in 2013 had triggered additional surcharges for which Julie never received notice, and led to a suspension when she failed to pay them. The officer then gave Julie a ticket for driving with a suspended license, which she later learned triggered more fines, surcharges and yet another suspension.

Julie spent years trying to get her license back, but in the meantime, she had to keep driving to keep her job and care for her children. This led to more tickets and more suspensions. Every time she saved up to pay a ticket, she’d be surprised by yet another suspension. She also accumulated warrants for missed payments on her tickets. She was afraid to even try to renew her license, because she could be arrested on these warrants at the Department of Public Safety’s driver’s license office.

“It’s impacted almost every part of my life. Obviously I’m not supposed to be driving without my license, but I have to. I don’t live where there’s public transportation, so in order to get to work or take my kids to school or go to the grocery store and buy food, I have to drive without my license. That’s very scary, especially if you see a police person. That part’s terrifying. 

But it’s actually also impacted other parts of my life, like being able to rent an apartment…to enroll in any sort of programs to better your future. I have a bachelor’s degree and I wanted to enroll in a teacher’s certification program but I can’t…so even to get ahead, to get a better job, I’m not able to do any of those things without the ID or a driver’s license. There’s no way. 

I didn’t even know that there were so many programs. There’s so many different programs and so many different fees and fines that once you’re caught up in it it’s just impossible to get out, and definitely I can’t navigate it by myself.”

– Julie, Resident of Austin, TX, and Texas Fair Defense Project client

Eventually, Julie met with a pro bono attorney from the Texas Fair Defense Project who was able to help her reinstate her license. Unfortunately, most people don’t have access to the legal assistance that Julie received. And her story is far from unique. Approximately are currently unable to obtain a valid license as a direct result of not paying fines, fees or surcharges. As with Julie, the suspensions often start with a minor traffic offense. After losing their licenses due to inability to pay the original fines and fees for that ticket, people face a difficult choice. Most Texans must drive in order to provide for themselves and their families. But by doing so, they risk receiving more tickets, compounding their debts and driving them deeper into poverty. Yet, if they stop driving, they may lose their jobs, access to medical care, their ability to care for their children and any hope of ever paying off the fines, fees and surcharges.

Most license suspensions do not result from dangerous driving but from failing to pay fines, fees and surcharges. Like Julie, the vast majority of people caught in this cycle desperately want to resolve what they owe and to drive legally. However, Texas law currently puts up virtually insurmountable financial and procedural barriers to legal driving for people like Julie. The state’s illogical suspension programs harm all Texans, not just those barred from getting a valid license. The programs harm public safety by diverting law enforcement resources away from more serious crime. People with warrants for license-related offenses also frequently avoid contact with the police for fear of arrest, further harming public safety. The programs also negatively affect the Texas economy by causing people to lose jobs or preventing people from obtaining employment, forcing many to rely on public benefits. And they clog up our courts and the Department of Public Safety phone lines and offices with people who want a valid license, but cannot navigate the myriad suspension programs and complicated reinstatement process.

This report discusses these suspension programs in detail, as well as the problems they cause, and proposes solutions to get Texans back on the road legally. First, the report provides an overview of the programs that cause financial-based license suspensions and holds. The following section discusses the human and fiscal costs of those suspension programs. After that, that report provides a detailed analysis of the problems created by the OmniBase Program in particular, which puts holds on driver’s licenses when a person is unable to pay a fine or fee. Finally, this report contains state and local policy recommendations. For the benefit of all Texans, these reforms should be enacted immediately.

Overview of Driver’s License Consequences for Nonpayment of Fines and Fees

The majority of license suspensions in Texas are not due to unsafe driving behaviors such as driving while intoxicated, but are instead due to financial barriers. About sevenin Texas are a direct result of the driver failing to pay fines, fees, and surcharges, most of which stem from minor traffic offenses. These types of suspensions are not intended to keep our roads safe. Instead, the courts and the Department of Public Safety (“the Department”) use license suspensions as a tool to enforce court orders and collect revenue.

There are two statewide programs that directly lead to an invalid driver’s license for nonpayment of fines, fees and surcharges: the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) and the OmniBase Program. The official name for the OmniBase Program is the Failure to Appear/Pay Program, but it is most commonly referred to as “OmniBase” or just “Omni” after the private vendor, OmniBase Services of Texas, that administers the program for the Department.

Through the DRP, after someone is convicted of particular driving-related offenses, the These surcharges are on top of any and all fines, fees, and court costs charged by the court in the underlying offense. If a person fails to pay the surcharges, regardless of the reason, .

The OmniBase Program on an individual’s license when they fail to appear in court or fail to pay a fine or cost in any criminal case. The OmniBase Program does not require a conviction or hearing before the court places the hold. After a hold is placed, the person is unable to renew their license until the fine or cost is paid in full.

Both the OmniBase Program and the DRP have similarly devastating impacts on people who are unable to pay the fines, costs and surcharges that they owe. The programs frequently punish and entrap people who have not paid fines, costs and surcharges simply because they don’t have enough money. , and for them, driving is the only way that they can get to work, take their children to school and childcare, and accomplish other necessary daily tasks like grocery shopping and medical appointments. When their licenses are suspended and they lack the money to pay the necessary fines and costs to reinstate them, they are forced to choose between continuing to drive on an invalid license and thereby risking additional fines and jail time, or losing their employment and ability to support their families and themselves.

The Department also has the power to suspend licenses through a third mechanism called Departmental Suspensions, which compounds the problems created by the DRP and OmniBase programs. The . For example, if a person enters a guilty plea for driving without insurance and the Department determines that the ticket was issued during a suspension period, the Department usually suspends the license for an additional one to two years. As in Julie’s case, this almost always comes as a surprise to the person taking care of the old ticket. Departmental Suspensions prolong punishment for driving on an invalid license, further trapping people in a cycle of poverty when they cannot pay fines and surcharges.

The OmniBase Program and DRP have led to approximately as a direct result of failing to pay fines and surcharges, leading to approximately 1.7 million individuals with currently suspended licenses on account of these programs. This includes:

  • 1.5 million individuals with licenses suspended due to unpaid DRP surcharges;
  • 320,000 individuals with expired licenses they cannot renew because of OmniBase holds; and
  • 489,000 individuals with OmniBase holds on active licenses that will not be eligble for renewal when they expire.

Departmental suspensions for Driving While License Invalid or Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility (i.e., not having insurance), which often result from having a license suspended for not paying fines and fees, have led to .

Overall, the majority of driver’s license suspensions and holds — about four in five –- stem from financial reasons, with the remaining ones resulting from dangerous driving, convictions for certain offenses, or other reasons.

The Driver Responsibility Program

The Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) was established by the Texas Legislature in 2003, when the Legislature was facing one of the largest budget shortfalls in state history. The DRP helped to address that shortfall by funding. Under the DRP, the Department assesses surcharges against drivers under :

  • A driver receives six or more “points” on their license. Each normal traffic citation counts as two points and any citation involving a collision counts as three points. Surcharges are assessed at $100 for the first six points received within three years and $25 for each additional point. That total amount is assessed every year for three years.
  • A driver is convicted of driving without insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, leading to surcharges ranging from $100 to $250 assessed every year for three years.
  • A driver is convicted of driving while intoxicated. Surcharges for this offense range from $1,000 a year to $2,000 a year for three years.

DRP surcharges are assessed in addition to the fines and court costs ordered by the court for the underlying offense. DRP surcharges are owed to the Department; the fines and costs are owed to the court. Paying off one’s fines and costs in full does nothing to affect one’s surcharges. If a driver does not pay surcharges on time, their license is automatically suspended until the surcharges have been paid, which is often a matter of years.

Many people are unaware that they have incurred surcharges and believe they have resolved what they owe after paying the criminal fines and court costs. They are later surprised to learn that their licenses were suspended as a result of unpaid surcharges arising from the same offense. People frequently do not know their driver’s license is suspended until they get pulled over for a traffic violation and the officer runs their license number.

The fact that the Department assesses surcharges over the course of three years can also be confusing; many people think that after paying the surcharges the first year they are resolved. As of January 2018, nearly have license suspensions due to unpaid DRP surcharges.

People with DRP suspensions often must continue to drive in order to provide for themselves and their families, given the lack of access to public transportation in most of Texas. If they continue driving, they often receive more citations for driving without a valid license or without insurance, which in turn, leads to more surcharges. As a result of this vicious cycle, of DRP suspensions are due to unpaid surcharges for driving without a valid license or without insurance — not DWI or moving violations.

In 2011, for the DRP, which allows people to apply to the Department for waiver of their surcharges. The Department defines “indigent” as earning less than 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which was $32,187 for a family of four in 2018. Today, if the Department accepts a person’s proof that they are indigent, surcharges are waived. There is also an that can reduce, rather than waive, surcharges for people who can demonstrate that they make between 125 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Unfortunately, most people who are eligible for the Indigency or Incentive Programs do not know that the programs exist and do not apply. Only through the Incentive Program. In a state with a , one would expect more than 200,000 people with suspended licenses due to the DRP to be eligible for Indigency waivers, yet only a fourth of that number were granted.

In addition to a lack of knowledge about the waiver and reduction programs, another barrier is that the application is difficult for many people to complete and the required documentation can be difficult to provide. For example, some people find it impossible to prove that they are unemployed or have no income, so cannot successfully prove to the Department that they qualify. Furthermore, people whose wages are garnished for child support or other reasons often fail to qualify for relief because the application only considers gross income. Finally, when the Department rejects an application, it does not always provide a sufficient explanation for a person to properly re-apply even if they’re eligible.

The DRP is widely accepted as a failure, even by the original authors of the bill that brought the program into existence. The program punishes people over and over again for the offense of being poor. In 2010, a former Texas representative who was the lead author of the bill that brought the DRP into existence admitted that “we definitely made a mistake . . . . I think it’s past time to either revise or repeal the program.” However, despite many attempts, repealing the DRP has proven difficult, in large part because trauma hospitals have become dependent on the revenue from surcharges that is appropriated towards trauma care. The Texas legislature will again have the opportunity to end this failing and damaging program during the 86th legislative session.

The OmniBase Program

Under the OmniBase Program (also known as the Failure to Appear/Pay Program), courts may contract with the Department to put a hold on a person’s driver’s license . The OmniBase hold prevents people from renewing their licenses until their fines and costs are paid in full. Additionally, people are charged a cost of $30 per hold that .

Called OmniBase after the private company that contracts with the Department to track the holds, court must opt into the OmniBase Program and enter a contract with the Department to participate. Participation is widespread across the state. According to the OmniBase website, 732 out of 961 Texas cities and 243 out of 254 Texas counties participate. Though courts of all levels can use the OmniBase Program, it’s used , which handle the lowest level criminal offenses, such as citations for traffic offenses and violations of city ordinances, and the vast majority of criminal cases involving fines.

As of January 2018, there were with licenses that had already expired and were ineligible for renewal due to Omnibase holds. Another 489,000 people had OmniBase holds on their licenses and will be ineligible for renewal when their licenses expire in the future.

Some courts consider the OmniBase Program a tool to convince people to take care of their fines and costs. Some people may not realize that they have outstanding citations until they attempt to renew their license, so an OmniBase hold provides notice of this information so they can resolve the citation. As long as they have the resources to immediately pay what they owe, they will be able to move on with their lives. But for people struggling to make ends meet, the OmniBase Program can be disastrous.

Unlike the DRP, the OmniBase Program does not have an Indigency Program or an Incentive Program. In fact, does not permit courts to waive fines and fees for the underlying offense unless they first make a finding that the person is indigent and cannot perform community service without undue hardship. Instead of waiving what is owed, the a payment plan to pay in installments, or community service to work off what is owed at a rate of $12.50 per hour. But most courts currently require people to complete all payments or all community service hours—resolving the entire amount owed—before notifying the Department to lift the holds. And if a person received the ticket in a place where they no longer reside or were just traveling through, they often have no way to travel back to the jurisdiction to appear before a judge and ask for community service, meaning they have no way to resolve the underlying offense whatsoever.

Because it is so easy to accumulate fines and costs, many low-income Texans are put on court-ordered payment plans and community service plans that last for many months or even years. This means that even defendants who are in compliance with court orders and are making good faith efforts to make payment plan installments or complete community service hours must wait months or years to get their licenses back. Ironically, the inability to obtain a license while on a payment plan or community service plan makes it much harder to come up with the money for payments or travel to a community service site.

Administering the OmniBase Program is complicated and can be confusing for court clerks and defendants alike. Holds are not issued per person, but per case, meaning a single person can have multiple OmniBase holds from a single court. To add to the confusion, many people have holds from multiple courts without realizing it, oftentimes from different jurisdictions all located within the same county. Obtaining information online about a person’s existing holds is impossible if you do not know their driver’s license number and the information available is not always accurate. People often finally pay off all their citations in one court only to later find out that they still have holds they were unaware of in other local justice courts or municipal courts. Court clerks can also have difficulty determining which holds are active when somebody has multiple holds spanning many years, and it is not uncommon for clerks to forget to lift holds after a person pays off multiple citations. Because of the difficulty determining which courts have holds on a license, and the difficulty of obtaining and complying with an alternative sentence from each court, many indigent people eventually give up on the idea of ever obtaining a valid driver’s license.

Departmental Suspensions

The Department of Public Safety also has the power to suspend a driver’s license through a Departmental Suspension, which can prolong a suspension period for a person trying to regain their driver’s license. Many drivers caught in the DRP or the OmniBase Program end up receiving as well. Pursuant to state law, if the Department determines that a person drove while their license was invalid or while they didn’t have insurance, the , on top of any other suspensions or holds. These additional suspensions last one to two years, depending on the length of the original suspension. As of April 2018, there were people with active Departmental Suspensions resulting from convictions for driving with an invalid license or without insurance.

In order to determine whether somebody was driving during a suspension period, the Department relies on records of convictions that indicate the person was driving. For example, the Department considers convictions for driving with an invalid license as grounds for a Departmental Suspension, and also infers that a person was driving if he or she is convicted of an offense like speeding, failing to signal, or failing to dim headlights during a time when their license was invalid.

Because Departmental Suspensions begin upon conviction of an offense, not the date of the offense or citation, they can be implemented well after the conduct they are intended to punish. This means that if somebody goes to court to arrange a payment plan for a ten-year-old citation that they previously failed to address and that was issued while their license was invalid, they will immediately receive a new Departmental Suspension based on the evidence that they were driving ten years ago on an invalid license, despite the fact that so much time has passed since the initial conduct.

In effect, Departmental Suspensions are fundamentally at odds with the OmniBase Program. The OmniBase Program is meant to compel people to come to court to pay citations. But when they do so, they may be hit with new Departmental Suspensions as a result. This punishes people for trying to take responsibility for their fines and makes it impossible for people to get back on their feet.

Reinstatement Fees

Finally, reinstatement fees are another serious hurdle for drivers who have had holds or suspensions and who are attempting to get their licenses back. Even after taking care of all fines, fees, and surcharges, and after serving any Departmental Suspension periods, most people are still barred from obtaining a license until they pay mandatory reinstatement fees charged by the Department.

People who have been caught up in the DRP and the OmniBase Program typically owe between $100 and $325 in various reinstatement fees. Unlike the OmniBase fee, the Department reinstatement fees cannot be waived or reduced for indigency or for any other reason. If an individual cannot pay them, they cannot get their license back.

Occupational Driver’s Licenses 

Most people with invalid licenses stemming from fines, fees, surcharges or Departmental Suspensions can apply for an occupational driver’s license (ODL), which requires a court order. An ODL allows you to legally drive to and from certain places, such as work, as ordered by the court that issues it. But most people with DRP or OmniBase holds do not know that ODLs are an option and do not apply for them.

Even for those who do know about the option, the process of obtaining an ODL is long and complicated, not to mention very expensive. Attorneys routinely charge between $500 and $750 to handle ODL applications. While people can apply for an ODL without hiring an attorney, the process is so labyrinthine that just determining which court to file in can be impossible for many people to figure out on their own. Courts also charge filing fees of around $250 just to apply. These fees can be waived for indigency if the person knows to fill out a fee waiver application, which many do not. In addition, ODL applicants must pay all reinstatement fees to the Department before obtaining an ODL—fees that are often upwards of $200.

The restrictiveness of ODLs also varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Judges have wide discretion to put any number of conditions on the ODLs, so an applicant in one court can receive a much more restrictive license than an identical applicant in another court. For example, a judge in one county allows applicants to receive ODLs with virtually no restrictions except a requirement that they keep a logbook of their driving. However, another judge in the same county imposes a number of harsh restrictions, including requiring the applicant to sign up for probation and pay a probation fee of $50 a month as a condition of keeping the ODL. 

A Vicious Cycle

A single traffic citation can trap Texans in a cycle of license suspensions and poverty.

The programs described above trap low-income Texans in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. The cycle often starts with a citation for a moving violation like changing lanes without a signal or speeding, or even a broken headlight that a driver cannot afford to fix. If the driver cannot afford to pay the fines and courts costs associated with the citation, an OmniBase hold is placed on the license and the person will not be able to renew it.

In order to support themselves and their families, not to mention pay the fines and court costs to get their driver’s license back, most Texans have to drive to work. But by doing so on a suspended license, they risk being pulled over and receiving more citations. Under a separate program known as the Scofflaw program, counties may deny vehicle registration renewal to people who have not paid fines and fees, meaning many people simultaneously lose their ability to register their vehicles due to unpaid fines and fees. So law enforcement may stop them for an expired registration sticker even if they have not committed a moving violation. At this point, they will likely receive several traffic citations per stop, including citations for driving without a valid license, driving without insurance (which is difficult to obtain with an invalid license) and driving with expired vehicle registration. It is easy to accumulate dozens of citations and thousands of dollars of ticket debt as a result.

If somebody is caught driving without a valid license or without insurance, or if they receive three or more traffic citations within three years, that person will also face hefty surcharges under the DRP. When people fail to pay surcharges, their licenses are automatically suspended. Continuing to drive on a suspended license risks not only more citations, but more hefty surcharges under the DRP. In addition, a conviction for any traffic citation received during a suspension period will trigger another Departmental Suspension for one to two years.

When people contact the Department to seek guidance for restoring their driver’s licenses, they often encounter what can seem like a black hole. Given the call wait times, it is often impossible to speak to someone over the phone at the Department about what is leading to an invalid license. Information available online is difficult to find and can be inaccurate. Not being able to speak to anyone on the phone or find enough information online leads people who are struggling with licenses to visit the Department in person. The Department service centers are completely overwhelmed and understaffed, with people reporting wait times of up to 8 hours just to renew a license. The people flooding the Department because of the DRP and OmniBase holds undoubtedly contribute significantly to these wait times.

Finally, even if somebody is able to successfully navigate the DRP Indigency Program, pay or work off all of their fines and costs without accumulating more citations and wait out any Departmental Suspension triggered by paying off those fines and costs, that person will still need to pay all applicable reinstatement fees, which often total hundreds of dollars. In sum, once a low-income person loses their license under one of these programs, the prospect of ever driving legally again can seem hopeless.

Impact on Employment

Driver’s license-related consequences for not paying fines and fees hinder Texans’ ability to remain employed and support their families.

A shortage of adequate public transportation makes driving a necessity for survival in much of Texas. Currently, more than 90 percent of employed workers commute to work in a car, either alone or in a carpool, . Only 1.4 percent use public transportation to commute to work. Most low-income Texans do not live within a reasonable public transit commute distance from local employers. Even densely populated urban areas in Texas generally lack an adequate public transportation infrastructure. In major cities like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and El Paso, fewer than one-third of jobs are accessible within a 90-minute public transportation ride. In rural areas, public transportation is even less available.

Relatedly, much of the job growth in urban areas is in the suburbs rather than the city center. So even if public transportation exists within the city center, it is difficult for people who cannot legally drive to access job opportunities in the suburbs.

Even if someone can avoid commuting to work by car, just the fact that a person does not have a valid driver’s license makes finding and keeping employment and housing more difficult.  One study of drivers with suspended licenses found that 42 percent lost their jobs when their license was suspended. Forty-five percent of these people could not find another job, and the overwhelming majority of those who did find another job (88 percent) had to take a pay cut. The impact was even greater on drivers with household incomes below $30,000. Sixty-four percent of these drivers lost their jobs when their license was suspended and 51 percent could not find another job.

Not only are valid driver’s licenses necessary for many job applications, a valid driver’s license is viewed as a sign of stability and trustworthiness. Without one, an applicant for a job or an apartment may lose out to the applicant with a valid license. Many employers ask applicants to provide a valid driver’s license with their applications, even for jobs where driving is not required. This is especially common in fields such as construction, health care, manufacturing or office jobs—jobs that often pay above minimum wage and have the potential to help families escape poverty. Landlords also commonly ask applicants for driver’s licenses.

On top of the negative financial impact to individuals and their families, the loss of employment and income caused by driver’s license suspensions has a broader economic impact.  When people cannot drive to work, employers are forced to hire and train new employees. When people stop being able to support themselves financially and provide for their families, people may file claims for unemployment benefits and other government assistance, passing the costs on to taxpayers. Loss of income can also lead to more uninsured drivers on the road, pushing more economic burden on people who are insured.

Rather than empowering people to be self-sufficient, suspensions stemming from poverty hinder employment and the financial stability of Texas families. Texas must establish a clear path forward for people who want a valid driver’s license, who want to comply with court orders, and who want to work, but are currently prevented from doing so through the OmniBase Program or DRP.

Risk of Jail Time

Driver’s license holds and suspensions frequently lead to jail time

Unsurprisingly, many people with suspended licenses choose to keep driving even without a valid license, given that driving is a necessity to maintain employment in most cities and counties across Texas. Beyond employment, most Texans also have to drive to buy groceries, visit the doctor, or drop their children at daycare, among other necessary routine tasks.

In addition to the piling on of tickets, surcharges and fees, people who continue to drive after losing their licenses are often arrested and jailed as a result. Jail stays can have devastating consequences on individuals and families and compound the negative economic consequences suffered by families when a breadwinner has a suspended license. Even short jail stays can lead to people being fired from their jobs or being evicted from their housing. When jailed, people may have no way of knowing where their children are or who is taking care of them; they also may be threatened with removal of their children because they are in jail. Existing medical conditions and mental health issues may be exacerbated when they do not have access to their typical medications and medical care. Furthermore, having an arrest record and/or criminal conviction on their records makes finding sustainable housing and employment in the future dramatically more difficult.

There are two ways that license suspensions can lead to jail time: one, being charged with the Class B misdemeanor of Driving While License Invalid, and two, being committed to “sit out” fines in jail on a Class C misdemeanor.

A. Driving While License Invalid Charges

Under Texas law, a first-time Driving While License Invalid (DWLI) offense in isolation is a Class C misdemeanor, meaning a person will usually receive a ticket rather than being booked into jail. A second or subsequent DWLI, or any DWLI (even a first offense) combined with not having insurance or with a previously suspended license due to a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), bumps DWLI up to a Class B misdemeanor. A Class B misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to a $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail. Regardless of whether your license is invalid for not paying a traffic ticket or for driving after a suspension due to a DWI conviction, .

Repeat DWLI often occurs when people have been previously charged with DWLI and do not have the financial resources to get their license back, yet must continue to drive out of necessity. Vicki Ashley, the Travis County Attorney’s Office criminal trial division director, explained the huge number of DWLI charges in Travis County: “The people that we’re seeing over and over again in large measure have gotten themselves into such a deep financial burden that they don’t see a way out. They cycle through with DWLI arrests or citations or charges, a couple times a year. Every single time it adds surcharges.

When drivers are charged with a Class B DWLI, they are most often arrested and booked into jail. T for police departments and other law enforcement agencies to implement cite-and-release policies for certain misdemeanors including DWLI (meaning a person could get a ticket ordering them to appear in court on a certain date and avoid jail booking), but most departments have not done so. Furthermore, when a driver is booked into jail, their vehicle is typically impounded meaning they will have to pay the towing company to have their vehicle returned to them. A typical towing fee is $200 and the cost rises the longer the vehicle is stored.

If a person is arrested for a Class B DWLI, either after the original traffic stop or upon missing court, they will usually have the opportunity to pay a bond to be released quickly. Bond amounts for Class B misdemeanors vary by county, but can range from $400 to $1,000 or more, and . In many Texas counties, most people wait in jail on a DWLI charge until they enter a plea deal, often pleading guilty in exchange for time served and their immediate release, or until they go to trial. Furthermore, a conviction for DWLI also usually includes jail time as part of the sentence. Statewide, there were 11,700 convictions for Class B DWLI in 2017. In resulting in conviction, the defendant was sentenced to jail.

Thousands of people are booked into jail each year on charges related to their driver’s license being invalid or expired. Examining jail booking records in 9 large counties reveals that without a more serious offense over the course of a single year. Another 1700 people were booked in on other driver’s license-related charges, such as having an expired driver’s license, in those counties in the same year.

Data reflects 2017 jail bookings, except for Dallas and Montgomery which are 2016 jail bookings. Galveston County length of stay not available.
Data reflects 2017 jail bookings, except for Dallas and Montgomery which are 2016 jail bookings. Galveston County length of stay not available.

B. Commitment for Nonpayment of Fines and Costs

A first offense for DWLI is a Class C misdemeanor intended to be punished by fine alone, but jail time may result nonetheless. When people fail to pay fines for Class C misdemeanors, the court often issues a capias warrant for their arrest. These can be executed anywhere, even a person’s home or place of work, but are most often executed during another traffic stop. Because many people with capias warrants for unpaid fines have also lost the ability to register their vehicles, they may be stopped and arrested for their expired registration without any moving violation. Moreover, with the widespread use of Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), police can quickly scan thousands of license plates to identify drivers with outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and pull them over even if they have not committed a moving violation.

Once arrested, at a rate set by state law of at least $100 of jail credit per day. Because it is so easy to accumulate thousands of dollars in traffic citations, many people who are committed to jail are held for days or even weeks due to unpaid fines and costs. , people cannot be committed to jail for failure to pay fines or costs unless the judge holds a hearing and determines that the person either (1) is able to pay the amount but has chosen not to pay; or (2) is unable to pay, has been given the opportunity to complete community service and could have performed it without undue hardship but has chosen not to do the community service. These hearings are often perfunctory and incomplete, if they happen at all, and as a result, many low-income people end up in jail illegally solely due to their inability to pay. In some Texas jurisdictions, officers take people directly to jail to lay out their fines and they never see a judge, let alone have a hearing.

Even if people are not committed to weeks in jail, they may be held in jail for up to 48 hours by law just waiting to see a judge before being released. They usually receive $100 of jail credit per day in jail while they wait, but for some, that may not even make a dent in the amount they owe. Additionally, if a person has multiple citations, they can accumulate hundreds of dollars in warrant fees of every time they are arrested and released, continuously driving up their debt and bouncing them in and out of jail.

C. Enforcement of Financial-Related License Suspensions Wastes Law Enforcement Resources and Makes Texas Communities Less Safe

The authors of this report and their partners have interviewed hundreds of people who have lost their licenses under the programs described here. All of those people have had one thing in common: they desperately want to obtain their driver’s licenses and get back on the road legally so that they can get the rest of their lives on track. By creating insurmountable barriers for low-income people who want to regain their driver’s licenses, the programs described here trap people in poverty and make us all less safe.

Instead of using law enforcement resources to address more serious crimes, or to focus on dangerous driving, law enforcement officers are forced to spend time addressing unpaid fines and fees. Research has demonstrated that the more law enforcement resources dedicated to collecting fines and fees, the lower the clearance rate for violent crimes and property crimes. In particular, arresting and booking a person into jail takes time. One Ohio study estimated a suspended license case required seven hours of an officer’s time, when accounting for the stop, the vehicle impoundment, the jail booking and time in court. This is seven hours the officer is unavailable for other duties, including 911 responses and criminal investigations.

A roadside encounter with a suspended driver is a time-consuming endeavor for officers.Drivers suspended for non-driving reasons represent 39% of all suspended drivers [nationwide], and are not the threat to the motoring public as other suspended drivers. Reducing law enforcement roadside encounters with suspended drivers by up to 39% would result in significant time savings allowing officers to be available for calls for service and other proactive highway safety activities. — Chief John Batiste, Washington State Patrol 

Another way that license suspensions further damage public safety is through unnecessary jail stays for low-risk Texans whose most serious offense is driving without a valid license. that detaining non-dangerous people in jail, even just for a few days, is strongly correlated with higher rates of new criminal activity. even years after the detention. The higher likelihood of criminal activity following pretrial detention is on most people’s lives, especially when those people are already struggling to get by. Even with short jail stays, people may lose their jobs, their housing, their children and family support, not to mention the deleterious effects on their physical and mental health. Finding other ways to hold people accountable besides jail, such as driver safety classes, license restoration clinics, community service and probation, will conserve law enforcement resources and jail beds for dangerous people who threaten public safety, while allowing people whose most serious offense is not paying fines or fees and then driving with an invalid license to avoid detention and to financially support themselves and their families.

Unnecessary jail time also costs county taxpayer dollars. County sheriffs must feed and house people, provide them medical care and prescription drugs, and employ the jail staff available to oversee the jail population, which costs an average rate of $60 per day — and much higher in some counties. The license-related jail stays in the 10 counties that this report analyzed accounted for 12,721 jail bed days – a cost of more than $750,000, based on the average jail bed day cost of $60.

Moreover, district attorneys and criminal courts must allocate time and resources to the prosecution and adjudication of charges that are most often a result of poverty. Notably, some district attorneys have instituted policies to reduce the number of DWLI charges that they prosecute, realizing the resources wasted on DWLI prosecution. For example, Tarrant County’s District Attorney prosecutes relatively few Class B DWLI, having instructed law enforcement to charge DWLI as a Class C offense in most instances (merely writing a ticket that should not be punishable by jail) in order to conserve prosecution resources for more serious crimes. Other counties, like Travis County, are establishing ways to divert these offenses or refile as Class C misdemeanors as well. Ultimately, people charged with driver’s license-related offenses need instructions for obtaining a valid license more than anything else, and most cases should be deferred, allowing for charges to be dismissed if the person obtains a valid license. However, in order for that policy to work, the laws must be changed so that it is possible for lay people to navigate the license-recovery process by themselves.

An In-Depth Look at the Omnibase Program

Omnibase holds largely affect low-income people and disproportionately people of color

While advocates and legislators have acknowledged the harms associated with the DRP over the past few years, little attention has been paid to the OmniBase program. For that reason, this section dives deeper into that program specifically in order to paint a better picture of who is impacted by it — primarily low-income people and disproportionately people of color, many of whom have not been able to reinstate their license for many years.

The fact that the program disproportionately punishes low-income Texans is evidenced by the huge number of holds that are placed on licenses for offenses that are associated with poverty. Driving without insurance, displaying expired license plates, driving with an invalid license and no driver’s license all often result from a lack of financial resources and are poverty-related, while moving violations like speeding are committed by drivers of all income levels. OmniBase holds from 2013 through 2017 resulted from these poverty-related offenses. Ultimately, one needs money to obtain car insurance or to pay their vehicle registration fee. For example, It costs on average $1300 annually (depending on your county of residence) to insure a vehicle in Texas, and it is even more expensive to get insurance if you do not have a driver’s license. A person also needs money to obtain a driver’s license and money to keep one, including resolving any legal financial obligations like fines, court costs or surcharges. Consequently, people without money are most often convicted of these offenses.

A. Long-term Holds Demonstrate People Lack a Path to Reinstating Their Licenses

Further evidence that the OmniBase Program punishes people for their poverty are the tens of thousands of people who have years-long or even decades-long holds on their licenses.  The Program’s purpose is to compel payment before or at the time people renew their license. Almost anyone who has the money to pay the underlying fines or costs will do so when their license expires to avoid risking further fines. However, for those without the money to do so, their license becomes invalid when it expires and may remain invalid for many years.  

The average length of time that expired licenses with OmniBase holds have been invalid is . The chart below shows how long licenses with OmniBase holds have been expired. (Active licenses with OmniBase holds are not included in this data.) Among these expired licenses, more than 50,000 licenses have been expired for over a decade and not had the hold removed, representing 10 percent of all expired licenses with OmniBase holds. Another 188,000 (or 39 percent of expired licenses with OmniBase holds) have been expired between five and ten years.

Someone who has endured an invalid license and all of its attendant consequences –- including the threat of more tickets and arrests, and the difficulty of finding employment and housing — almost certainly has no path to reinstating their license, or at least no path that they are able to navigate themselves. They do not have the money to hire an attorney to help them and do not have the money to pay the fines, costs and reinstatement fees required to get their license back. Relatedly, the court almost certainly will not be able to collect any money from them at this point given their lack of financial resources.

B. The OmniBase Program is Not Necessary to Enforce Court Judgments

Notably, the OmniBase Program is not viewed by all courts as a necessary tool to enforce court judgments. This is evidenced by the great variation in the degree to which courts rely on the program. , some issued tens of thousands of holds annually while others have voluntarily opted out of the program entirely or rarely issue holds at all.

OmniBase holds reported by municipal court in 2017.
OmniBase holds reported by municipal court in 2017.

Comparing the Dallas and Fort Worth Municipal Courts is particularly telling.  The Dallas Municipal Court relies heavily upon OmniBase for enforcement while the Fort Worth Municipal Court reported that it has not used OmniBase at all over the past three years. Yet there is virtually no difference in the revenue per case disposed between the two courts in the most recent year. .  

C. Case Study: Dallas OmniBase Holds are Concentrated in Low-income Zip Codes

Conversations with people who have OmniBase holds about the impact of the program on their lives offer ample anecdotal evidence about the disproportionate impact this program is having on low-income Texans. And the fact that this program punishes the poor is supported by the data as well.

The Dallas Municipal Court issues the most holds of large municipal courts from which we were able to obtain complete data. In 2017, they placed more than 75,000 holds on driver’s licenses. The Court had about 160,000 new cases added to their docket that year, meaning their ratio of holds to new cases was almost 1:2.

The map below shows a distribution of the OmniBase holds issued to people whose residential zip code is within Dallas County. The zip codes are also color-coded to show the median income within that zip code according to census data.

The map shows that OmniBase holds are concentrated in lower-income zip codes, many of which are in South Dallas. The highest income zip codes generally have very few holds. A correlation analysis revealed a significant negative relationship between holds and median income; as zip code income increased, the number of holds decreased.

The map does reveal a couple of anomalies, with two relatively high income zip codes near downtown Dallas that also have a comparatively high number of holds. One potential explanation is that these zip codes include several shelters and agencies that serve the Dallas homeless population, so have traditionally been areas of the city where many individuals experiencing homelessness reside. These individuals may be cited by law enforcement for city ordinances designed to govern their conduct, like no camping, no sitting or lying on sidewalks, no walking in roadways, or no soliciting, and have no money to pay the associated fines, leading to an OmniBase hold.

OmniBase holds for such offenses are not uncommon. For example, there were 3,500 OmniBase holds statewide related to not paying fines for walking on a roadway when a sidewalk was provided and another 1,500 OmniBase holds for unpaid tickets written for standing in a roadway to solicit contributions or employment. These are tickets most often written to individuals experiencing homelessness, meaning Omnibase is likely entrapping some of the most vulnerable individuals.

D. Racial Disparities Demonstrate Injustice in OmniBase Holds

by OmniBase holds than White drivers. Black individuals make up about in Texas. Yet, they are dramatically overrepresented among people with expired licenses that cannot be renewed due to OmniBase holds, representing 28.6 percent of these drivers. Significance tests of these proportions found that the differences for race groups are statistically significant, and not due to chance.

One factor contributing to the disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic drivers is undoubtedly the racial wealth gap in Texas. The for a White family in Texas is $59,891, while the median household income for a Black family in Texas is $42,582. More than 17 percent of Black families in Texas live in poverty compared to 11 percent of White families. So, on average, a Black driver will be less likely to be able to pay fines and costs in full than a White driver.

Other factors may also be contributing to the overrepresentation of people of color in the OmniBase Program, including the fact that Department of Public Safety officers cite Black and Hispanic drivers at a disproportionate rate. Examining stops by Department of Public Safety troopers, for example, shows higher rates of citations per stop for Black and Hispanic drivers compared to White drivers. Approximately versus one citation for every three stops of White drivers. While this fact alone is not a large enough difference to account for the greater rate at which Blacks and Hispanics experience OmniBase holds relative to Whites, it could contribute to the disparity. Ultimately, if a driver is more likely to receive a ticket when they are stopped, and less likely to have the money to pay that ticket, they are more likely to fail to pay and have an OmniBase hold that prevents them from renewing their license.

Data from Dallas Municipal Court discussed in the previous section shows the racial breakdown of all holds placed in 2017, with stark overrepresentation of Black drivers in that jurisdiction. While Black individuals make up only about 25 percent of the Dallas population, . Such a dramatic racial disparity indicates that the City of Dallas must take steps to identify the drivers of this disparity, be it different rates of traffic stops or citations, differences in income level and ability to pay fines or other factors, and then take steps toward eliminating this racial disparity. Other cities should examine their own data and undertake a similar inquiry.

Recommendations

Texans need a way out of the ongoing cycle of invalid driver’s licenses, tickets, mounting court debt, jail time and lost employment. Creating a navigable path to reinstatement of driver’s licenses for low-income Texans will not only help individual families gain financial stability, but will generate wealth for the Texas economy. Moving forward, driver’s license suspensions should be limited to those dangerous drivers who put others at risk when they are on the road, not drivers who haven’t paid fines, costs and surcharges.

The legislature should eliminate the OmniBase Program as well as the DRP. Eliminating license suspensions for nonpayment would free up resources to dedicate to public safety and public health. If the legislature is unwilling to eliminate the OmniBase Program, it should modify the program to ensure people are not trapped in the program due to poverty and provide people a clear path to driver’s license restoration. Furthermore, no person should be jailed for driver’s license-related offenses, particularly when the invalid license was due to nonpayment of fines or costs.

The following recommendations would create a system that is fair to all Texans while protecting public safety and more wisely using taxpayer dollars. Along with the state legislature, district attorneys, courts and city councils can all help create such a system.

Legislative Recommendations

Abolish or Reform the Omnibase Program

Abolishing the OmniBase Program and lifting all existing holds would be the simplest and most certain solution to address the problems associated with it.

However, if the OmniBase Program continues to exist, modifications must be made so that OmniBase holds are not put on licenses when people lack the ability to pay their fines and costs.

1. Limit holds to failure to appear and end holds for failure to pay.                  

Of the two types of OmniBase holds—one for failure to appear and one for failure to pay, failure to pay causes greater problems. Holds for failure to pay are generally placed on the licenses of people who have appeared in court, which indicates they were attempting to comply with court orders. More often than not they are unable to pay what was ordered. If a person is willfully refusing to pay an amount, the law offers tools for collecting the amount owed other than a license hold.  

2. Lift holds as soon as a person comes into compliance.

Most courts currently require defendants to complete all payment plan installments or all community service, resolving the entire amount owed, before the holds on their licenses are lifted. Many defendants owe thousands of dollars in fines and costs, meaning it will take many months or even years to pay or work off their balances. This means that even defendants who are in compliance with court orders and are making good faith efforts to make payment plan installments or complete community service hours will wait months or years to get their licenses (which in turn makes it harder for them to comply with those court orders). Courts should instead lift holds as soon as a defendant comes to court and makes a good faith effort to take care of their citations. People waiting for a pretrial setting or to complete payment plans or community service plans should be able to obtain licenses during that period. If a defendant misses a court date again or fails to comply with a court order, the court could issue a new hold on the license to ensure the defendant comes back to court.

3. Hold hearings before issuing holds.

Before defendants are deprived of their ability to obtain a driver’s license, the court should be required to order a hearing, providing the defendant an opportunity to be heard and explain why their fines or costs have not yet been paid. If the nonpayment was due to inability to pay or the failure to complete community service was on account of undue hardship, the court should not suspend the driver’s license, but instead modify the sentencing order so that the defendant can resolve the amount that they owe.

4. Implement an indigency program similar to DRP.

The DRP has an indigency program that allows people who live at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines to clear their surcharges and obtain valid driver’s licenses.  The OmniBase Program should have a similar program, through which defendants can submit a form or affidavit documenting their income.  If their income falls below a certain level, they should not be eligible for a license hold under OmniBase Program and any existing hold should be lifted.

5. Structure program so that only one hold is issued per person in each jurisdiction.

Currently, defendants can have multiple holds in each jurisdiction, and each hold also comes with a $30 fee that must be paid before the hold is lifted. Because it is so easy for defendants to accumulate tickets once they lose their licenses, they often end up owing hundreds of dollars in Omni costs. Furthermore, due to the large number of holds, many clerks make mistakes and fail to lift some of the holds once a person has taken care of their tickets. Holds should be applied per person instead of per case, so that each person has only one hold in each jurisdiction. This will simplify the process and decrease the likelihood of administrative errors.

6. Lift holds automatically after a license has been expired for two years.

Under current law, holds are not lifted until the fines or costs owed are completely resolved, meaning there are people with expired licenses that they have not been able to renew for many years. Presumably, most people who do have the ability to pay will pay in order to get their license back once it has been expired and they realize they risk additional tickets if they continue driving on an expired license. It is overwhelmingly those who lack the ability to pay who have suspensions that are many years old. By limiting the amount of time that a license can be denied renewal, the law would be making a reasonable attempt to differentiate between those who can pay and those who cannot – and lifting the holds for the latter without requiring them to jump through unnecessary hoops.

Repeal the Driver Responsibility Program and Fund Trauma Care without Relying on Revenue Generated by the Criminal Justice System

Despite repeal efforts over the past few legislative sessions, the DRP has been difficult to abandon due to state trauma hospitals’ dependence on DRP revenue. Money raised from the DRP is funneled into two funds: 50.5 percent to the General Revenue Fund and 49.5 percent to the Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Services Account. Though Trauma hospitals rely on the DRP, it is not a stable source of funding. Only about half of the surcharges assessed are ever paid despite the steep penalties, usually because the people with the most surcharges are too poor to pay them. The amount collected each year is unpredictable, and the total revenue from the DRP has often decreased from year to year, despite the overall growth of the state.

In 2017, H.B. 2068 (Phillips, L.) became the first DRP repeal bill to make it out of the House of Representatives before dying in the Senate. However, H.B. 2068 would have replaced the funding for trauma care by creating increased criminal fines – specifically, an additional $3,000 fine for driving while intoxicated, an additional $750 fee for driving without insurance, and an increase in the state traffic fine of $20. Unfortunately, while the bill would have helped many Texans with their DRP suspensions, many of those people would have simply ended up with OmniBase holds instead as a result of the new fines. In some ways, this would have put them in a worse position since the OmniBase Program does not have an indigency or incentive program like the DRP.

Instead of relying on fines or surcharges, trauma hospitals should have a stable source of funding that does not depend on squeezing money from low-income Texans who are already struggling with fines and fees. Therefore, the Texas Legislature should repeal the DRP and designate an appropriate amount of funding for trauma care from the general revenue.

End Departmental Suspensions

Departmental Suspensions are counterproductive and end up punishing people for coming to court to take care of old citations. The Texas Legislature should amend the code so that the Department may only administratively suspend a driver’s license in cases where a person was convicted of driving while intoxicated at the time their license was invalid.

Require Waiver of Reinstatement Fees

Most people who enter the DRP or the OmniBase Program end up owing $200 in reinstatement fees in addition to all other fines, fees and surcharges. These reinstatement fees cannot be waived for indigency and must be paid in full before a person can obtain a license. This means that reinstatement fees can be a final yet insurmountable barrier to reinstating one’s license even after resolving fines, fees and surcharges.  The Texas Legislature should require reinstatement fees to be waived upon a showing of inability to pay to either a court or the Department to eliminate this barrier.

Reduce Driving While License Invalid Charges to Class C Misdemeanors

The majority of all license suspensions are not based on convictions for dangerous offenses like driving while intoxicated but are instead due to the driver’s inability to pay a fine, fee or DRP surcharge. People who must continue to drive risk being charged with Driving While License Invalid (DWLI). While the first DWLI offense is a Class C misdemeanor, any subsequent offense can be charged as a Class B misdemeanor and carries up to six months in jail –- regardless of the reason for the original suspension.

The Texas Legislature should reduce Class B DWLIs to Class C misdemeanors except in cases where the original suspension was related to driving while intoxicated. Not only would this be more proportionate, it would save taxpayer dollars by diverting individuals from county jails and by eliminating the need to appoint an attorney in most cases. It would also improve public safety by keeping law enforcement officers on the street to focus on more serious crime.

Local Recommendations

Develop Court Procedures Designed to Avoid OmniBase Holds and DRP Surcharges for People Whose Nonpayment is Due to Poverty.

Many of the legislative recommendations suggested are already within a judge’s discretion to implement in their own court. Municipal court judges, along with justice court judges, should establish court policies that will prevent people from having invalid driver’s licenses due to poverty.  For example, judges should hold a show cause hearing to determine the cause for nonpayment before issuing an OmniBase hold. And judges should establish a policy that they will lift a hold as soon as a person voluntarily comes to court to take care of an outstanding fine, as opposed to waiting for them to be done with a payment plan or community service. Courts can also lift holds that have been in existence for a very lengthy period, where the likelihood of collecting any money is already extraordinarily low.

Municipal and justice court judges, in conjunction with their city councils and county commissioners courts, should also reconsider their city’s or county’s participation in the OmniBase Program and opt out entirely, choosing not to renew their contract with the Department.  While that contract is in place, city councils and court commissioners should monitor the compliance of municipal courts, justice courts and other county courts with the U.S. Constitution and state law, to ensure that their constituents’ rights are protected and to avoid a lawsuit similar to ones filed across the country challenging programs similar to OmniBase.

Implement Cite and Release Policies to Avoid Jail Time for DWLI and Related Offenses.

City councils and county commissioners courts should direct their local law enforcement agencies to develop cite-and-release policies. Texas law provides that for certain Class B misdemeanors, including DWLI, an officer may write a citation ordering a person to appear in court on a certain date, rather than arresting them and booking them in jail. This avoids many of the harms to individuals associated with a jail stay, as well as avoiding significant expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Cite and release is underutilized across Texas, though several departments are working to develop new policies or expand existing ones. If law enforcement agencies used cite and release more frequently, it would protect more Texans from the harms of pretrial detention.

Grant Personal Bonds Quickly for DWLI.

County court judges should issue standing orders that anyone who is booked into jail for DWLI or other driver’s license related offenses, and no more serious offense, is entitled to immediate and automatic release on a personal bond, without any monetary payment required. Again, this would protect Texans accused of DWLI from the harms of pretrial detention.

Develop Diversion Programs for DWLI.

District attorneys serve a vital role in ensuring public safety, and their limited resources could be better allocated by not prosecuting DWLI cases. They can instruct their local law enforcement to charge all DWLI as a Class C misdemeanor or could themselves reduce the charges for those Class B misdemeanors that are filed with their office to Class C misdemeanors. District attorneys can also divert DWLI cases that are filed, by deferring prosecution and allowing the person to work with a local clinic or legal services agency to restore their license, dropping the charges entirely if the person obtained a valid license within a certain period.

Develop Local Programs to Assist People with License Restoration.

City councils and county commissioners should work with their municipal and justice courts, respectively, to establish license restoration programs through which people who are struggling with holds for unpaid fines and fees can receive guidance and legal assistance in reinstating their license. The Austin Municipal Court has successfully held four such license restoration clinics so far in conjunction with the Texas Fair Defense Project and the William Wayne Justice Center at the University of Texas School of Law and the demand for the clinics has been overwhelming. They have led to hundreds of people with licenses suspended due to unpaid fines and surcharges receiving legal assistance to reinstate their license.

More about the Authors

Texas Appleseed

Texas Appleseed is a public interest justice center. Our nonprofit works to change unjust laws and policies that prevent Texans from realizing their full potential. We anchor a dynamic network of pro bono partners and collaborators to develop and advocate for innovative and practical solutions to complex issues. Texas Appleseed also conducts data-driven research that uncovers inequity in laws and policies and identifies solutions for lasting, concrete change. The many issues on which we work are united by the goal of greater justice. When justice is beyond reach, Texas Appleseed provides the ladder.

For more information, visit www.texasappleseed.org

Contact: Mary Mergler, mmergler@texasappleseed.net, (512) 473-2800 x106

Texas Fair Defense Project

The Texas Fair Defense Project’s mission is to fight for a criminal justice system that respects the rights of low-income Texans. We envision a new system of justice that is fair, compassionate, and respectful. Through impact litigation, legislative advocacy, and education, we are working to end counterproductive, costly, and unconstitutional practices like jail time for traffic tickets and our broken money-bail system.

For more information, visit www.fairdefense.org

Contact: Emily Gerrick, egerrick@fairdefense.org, (512) 879-1189

Special Thanks to Annie E. Casey Foundation

This report is a product of our work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt, which is developing strategies to lessen the impact of criminal and civil judicial fines and fees, as well as medical fees, high-cost consumer products and student loan debt, on communities of color.

We thank the Casey Foundation for its support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented here are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.

Out of Alignment

Overview of Study Findings

Female motorists in Texas with perfect driving records often pay significantly more for auto insurance than male motorists with identical driving records and other characteristics that insurers use to price auto insurance, according to Texas Appleseed’s research. Testing also found companies use added pricing penalties based on marital status, with unmarried women paying the highest average rates.  This finding is particularly troubling because of the for all drivers to purchase a basic auto insurance policy.

These surcharges appear to violate Texas law.

Texas Insurance Code §544.002 (a)(2).

It is unfair discrimination for an insurance provider to, “charge an individual a rate that is different from the rate charged to other individuals for the same coverage because of the individual’s… age, gender, marital status, or geographic location,”unless, “[the] charge is based on sound underwriting or actuarial principles reasonably related to actual or anticipated loss experience.” 

An assessment of online premium quotes from five large auto insurers operating in eight Texas cities found that all but one of the tested insurance providers alter rates for drivers based solely on their gender and marital status. The five auto insurers included are Allstate, Farmers Insurance, Geico, Progressive and State Farm.

On average, woman pay $56 more per year than men for the mandatory minimum auto insurance. Single and divorced women pay an even higher premium compared to similarly situated men. They pay, on average, $80 more per year, and the penalty, just for being female and unmarried, can reach $224 more per year for basic auto insurance coverage.

Other findings from the testing include:

  • Progressive and Farmers charge widowed females premiums that are 12%-13% higher than widowed men; by comparison State Farm maintains the same rate.
  • In the City of Houston, women with perfect driving records pay, on average, $75 more than men with the same record, same vehicle, and same address — the highest average female driver penalty of any of the eight cities studied.
  • Farmers Insurance had the highest gender disparity in pricing, charging women with perfect driving records an average of $144 more than men with the same record, same vehicle, and same address.
  • In contrast to other insurance companies tested, State Farm appears to comply with state law and does not change rates based on gender or marital status.

Basic Liability Insurance Required by Drivers to Comply with Texas Law

A policy must include:

  • $30,000 for bodily injury to or death of one person in one accident;
  • $60,000 for bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in one accident; and
  • $25,000 for damage to or destruction of property of others in one accident.

Required coverage may exclude the first $250 of liability for bodily injury to or death of one person, the first $500 of liability for two people, and the first $250 of liability for property damage or destruction of property of others. 

Study Methodology

Using insurance companies’ websites, Texas Appleseed compared 320 premium quotes for male and female drivers of different marital statuses.  The research also examined whether pricing patterns changed based on geography, testing rates in eight different Texas cities: Amarillo, Arlington, Dallas, Houston, Laredo, Mission, San Antonio, and Tyler. Throughout the testing, other factors such as age of driver, address (within each city), type of car, and annual miles driven were held constant. The auto insurance tested was the minimum coverage required by state law. In all instances, the were based on drivers with perfect records, including no accidents, tickets, or claims.

Texas Cities Tested in the Study

Finding: Basic Auto Insurance Costs Female Drivers More

In the eight cities studied, Texas Appleseed found that women with perfect driving records pay a gender surcharge that averages 5% of the total annual premium, paying $56 more than men for the same basic coverage. Among the cities surveyed, Houston and Mission stand out as having the largest average rate difference between men and women. On average, women in Houston pay $75 more than men, and in Mission, women pay $66 per year more than men for the same coverage.

Looking at rates by company shows a similar trend.  Four out of the five insurance providers surveyed charge women more than men, on average. Farmers has the highest average gender surcharge, charging female drivers $144 more than equivalent male drivers. Farmers Insurance in Houston charges the highest penalty among the surveyed companies and locations, charging divorced women in Houston $224 more than similarly situated men.

Single females pay a steep gender surcharge as compared to single males. On average, single females pay $80 more than single males for the same basic auto insurance coverage. For Farmers Insurance, the surcharge for single women is even higher, with rates averaging $192 more annually compared to single men.

Progressive Insurance charges women who are single $115 more than single males. Other insurance companies, such as Allstate and Geico, also charge single females more than single males, but with a smaller rate difference. In contrast, State Farm maintains consistent rates across gender and marital status.

Finding: Divorce Alone Can Lead to Auto Insurance Rate Hikes

Individuals who get divorced see, on average, a $49 annual increase in car insurance. Consistent with other findings, there is an even harsher penalty for divorced women. In Houston, Dallas, and Arlington, divorced women pay $99 to $136 more on average per year for basic auto insurance compared to married women. In Tyler, Laredo, and Amarillo, divorced women pay between $51 and $61 more than married women. In contrast, divorced men in Tyler, Laredo and Amarillo pay $5 to $12 less per year for basic auto insurance compared to married men. Across the cities tested, divorced females pay $80 more on average for basic auto insurance compared to divorced males.

Finding: Widows Pay a Penalty

Four of the five companies surveyed charge different rates for married and widowed female drivers. Geico and Progressive charge female drivers whose spouse is deceased higher premiums than if their spouse were still alive — a widow penalty. In contrast, the testing found that married female drivers are likely see premiums from Allstate and Farmers drop after becoming a widow. The picture is different for widowed males, who, in four of the five companies surveyed, were charged the same as or less than their married counterparts.

Women also pay more, in three out of the five companies tested, when comparing the premiums of women who have lost a spouse versus men who have lost a spouse. Widowed females pay $59 more than male widowers, on average. Farmers Insurance and Progressive charge widowed women 12% to 13% more than male widowers, $192 and $115 more respectively.  Geico is the only insurance company that charges widowed females less than male widowers — 5% or $41 less on average.

Finding: Houston and Mission Lead Surveyed Cities in Gender-based Penalty

Among the cities in the study, Houston has the highest basic auto insurance premiums for all drivers, while the lowest premiums are in Amarillo. The Houston market also has the greatest average price hike for women — $75 — followed by $66 in Mission. Women in San Antonio and Laredo faced the smallest average auto insurance price hike based on their gender, roughly $50 annually.

Finding: Farmers Has Largest Gender-Based Pricing Difference; State Farm Has None

While each company tested, with the exception of State Farm, has noteworthy increases in the cost of auto insurance for female drivers, only Farmers averages more than $100 in added auto insurance cost for women. Farmers Insurance charges female drives on average $144 more per year compared to male drives, but the added charges can go up to $200 in cities such as Dallas, Houston, and Arlington. Progressive and Allstate also show gender disparities in auto insurance pricing. Progressive charges female drivers an average of $86 more per year compared to male drivers with equivalent characteristics. Allstate charges female drivers $30 more on average per year compared to male drivers.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Texas law requires drivers to carry basic automobile liability insurance to compensate for damages or injuries caused by a car accident. Millions of Texans purchase basic liability insurance to comply with the law. Because auto insurance is one of the few private market products that Texans are legally obligated to purchase if they own a vehicle, special protections exist in state law to protect against unfair pricing discrimination. The Texas Department of Insurance has a legal obligation to regulate, manage, and enforce equitable auto insurance pricing.

The gender and marital discrimination practices discussed in this report violate legal standards that protect Texans against pricing penalties with no actuarial basis. Further, these differences frustrate the basic public policy goal of ensuring that all good drivers have access to fair and reasonably priced auto insurance, so drivers can comply with the law and protect others on the road.

The Texas Department of Insurance should:

  • Investigate differences in basic auto insurance pricing based on gender and marital status;
  • Assess possible failings in its rate evaluation systems that allow disparate pricing that results in gender-driven differences and appears to violate state law; and
  • Block discriminatory rating practices.

The Texas Legislature should:

  • Demand that the Texas Department of Insurance (the Department) fulfill its legal responsibility to prohibit pricing discrimination against women, people who are divorced, and widows in Texas;
  • Require the Department to submit a report to the Texas Legislature assessing unfair pricing disparities based on gender and marital status and a timeline to implement specific steps to address the problem; and
  • Legislate protection for women against unfair auto insurance pricing, if the Department is unwilling to enforce existing laws.

Allowing auto insurance pricing discrimination to persist against women in Texas is a major shortfall of insurance oversight in Texas.  It hurts the bottom line of single women and single mothers, it penalizes women who decide to leave marriages — including abusive relationships — and, in some circumstances, creates a penalty for widows based solely on losing a husband. Texas regulators and leaders should not tolerate charging more for basic auto insurance simply because someone is a woman. The law prohibits such pricing discrimination and common sense demands that good drivers should be charged the same price regardless of their gender or marital status.  It is time for the Texas Department of Insurance and the Texas Legislature to uphold and enforce the law.

Appendix A

Detailed Structure of Auto Insurance Premium Testing

Testing Dates: May 14- June 25, 2018

Five insurance companies (Allstate, Farmers, Geico, Progressive, and State Farm) were tested in eight different markets/geographies in the state of Texas: Houston, 2,303,482; San Antonio, population 1,492,510; Dallas, population 1,317,929; Arlington, population 392,772;  Laredo, population 257,156; Amarillo, population 199,582;  Tyler, population 104,798; and Mission, populatio 83,563.

Parameters used in testing and held constant across all profiles tested:

– Age: 40 years

– Employment: Cashier with private employer

  • In current job for 5 years or more.

– Education Level: High school degree

– Type of Housing: Rental (Apartment)

  • Lived in same place for 2 years or more

– Previous insurance company: State Farm (When testing State Farm, used Allstate)

  • Previously insured for 3 years.
  • Current Bodily Injury policy amount: “30,000/60,000 – State Minimum”
  • Current insurance expired at the end of the current month

– Type of Car: 2007 Toyota Camry

  • Purchased: March 2007
  • Car owned in full: Yes
  • Commute: 10 miles, 5 days per week
  • Miles driven per year: 15,000-15,999

– Members of household: Single, driver lives alone; married, driver lives with spouse only

  • Other drivers of the vehicle: Single, No; Married, spouse is secondary driver
  • Uninsured drivers in household in last 12 months?: No

– Age when driver’s license was obtained: 16 years  

– No accidents and No tickets or other violations

– No security device in vehicle and No driver safety class

– Did not participate in “SNAPSHOT,” “DRIVE SAFE & SAVE,” or other programs.

Insurance policy features (Minimum liability coverage according to Texas Law):

– Bodily Injury: $30,000 per person/$60,000 per accident

– Property damage per accident: $25,000

– Personal injury protection: “DECLINE”

The ONLY factors that varied:

– Gender: Male, Female

– Marital Status: Single, Divorced, Widowed, and Married

Each of the eight geographies was tested with the five different auto insurance providers. Within each insurance provider, eight different combinations were tested: Male-Single, Male-Divorced, Male-Widowed, Male-Married, Female-Single, Female-Divorced, Female-Widowed, and Female–Married. This resulted in the compilation of 320 premium quotes.

Within each geography, an apartment address was chosen in a zip code that had a median family income between 75% and 100% of the 2016 median family income (MFI) for the city, with the goal of targeting moderate-income communities. The zip code information and addresses chosen for the study are detailed in the chart below.

Source:  American Community Survey 2012-2016 5-Year Estimate.
Source:  American Community Survey 2012-2016 5-Year Estimate.

Appendix B

Annual Auto Insurance Premium Data

Collateral Consequences

Introduction

In the fall of 2006, 10-year-old Casey Harmeier was clowning around with friends in the hallway at school when he was dared to pull the plastic cover off of a fire alarm.  When he did so and an alarm sounded, he was arrested and taken to juvenile detention. His father, who worked for the school district, was not notified of his arrest until four hours later.  While Casey was initially charged with a felony offense, media attention and the ensuing public outrage eventually led to dismissal of the charges. But the trauma caused by the arrest was clear: in a journal entry after the incident, Casey spoke of the stigma of being arrested, saying he felt like a “disease” and a “vile monster.”  In the same entry, Casey said he was scared every time he “left his parents’ sight.”

This incident, and others like it (including the arrest of a sixth-grade girl for drawing a heart and writing “I love Alex”  in baby blue sharpie on the wall of her school’s gym) led to a series of bipartisan reforms at the Texas Legislature, meant to ensure that students would not face the same harsh consequences and ensuing trauma that Casey faced for what was age-appropriate misbehavior, rather than criminal behavior.

Texas’ Bipartisan Movement Away from Zero Tolerance

In addition to the research-based policies and practices implemented by schools and districts across Texas, over the past several legislative sessions important statewide reforms were adopted that ended harmful zero tolerance policies and pushed school districts to move away from criminalization and exclusion as responses to student behavior:

85th Legislative Session (2017):

House Bill 674 ended out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through 2nd grade students for most behaviors. The bill also recommended that school districts adopt age-appropriate, research-based alternatives to classroom removals so that students’ needs could be addressed appropriately, rather than punished and ignored.

84th Legislative Session (2015):

House Bill 2398 decriminalized the offense Failure to Attend School (truancy), a Class C misdemeanor that led to the prosecution of more than a hundred thousand Texas students every year. Recognizing the harms of forcing children as young as 10 into the criminal justice system and not addressing the underlying issues that can lead to chronic absenteeism, the legislature adopted a civil court process designed to apply non-criminal consequences and provide meaningful supports to students and families.

House Bill 2684 requires youth-focused training for all police officers that work in school districts with more than 30,000 students. Legislators acknowledged the need for law enforcement officials who have regular contact with students to be trained in topics like de-escalation techniques and the basics of adolescent development so that they do not rely on harsh and inappropriate responses like arrests and citations.

83rd Legislative Session (2013):

Senate Bill 1114 eliminated the offenses of Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation for behaviors committed by a student on their home campus. These were two vague, broad Class C misdemeanors for which students were commonly ticketed in their schools, often for very minor, age-appropriate behaviors.

Senate Bill 393 changed many processes related to how children are charged with fine-only offenses (Class C misdemeanors). Among other reforms, the bill ended the practice of ticketing students for Class C misdemeanors in schools, requiring instead a more formal complaint process and encouraging the adoption of a graduated sanctions model in school districts in order to address the harmful practice of criminalizing school-based behaviors.

82nd Legislative Session (2011):

House Bill 968 eliminated “persistent misbehavior” as a reason that a child could be expelled.

House Bill 359 & Senate Bill 1489 eliminated ticketing of students in sixth grade and younger for school-based nonviolent misbehavior, and eliminated ticketing of students under 12 for truancy and allowed ticketing of older students only as a last resort after other measured failed.

81st Legislative Session (2009):

House Bill 171 required school districts to consider the mitigating circumstances included in HB 603 in 2005 (described below), making the language mandatory rather than discretionary.

80th Legislative Session (2007):

House Bill 278 repealed a statutory provision that allowed school districts to ticket students for a Class C Misdemeanor for any Student Code of Conduct violation, even if the violation was not also a Penal Code offense.

House Bill 426 required the Texas Education Agency to develop minimum standards for Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEPs).

79th Legislative Session (2005):

House Bill 603 allowed schools to consider four mitigating factors before they remove a student from class for challenging behaviors: 1) self-defense; 2) intent or lack of intent at the time of the conduct; 3) the student’s discipline history; and 4) a disability that substantially impairs the ability of the student to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct. While the list of mitigating factors is not exhaustive, the legislature clearly recognized that taking a quick, zero tolerance approach to discipline ignores the circumstances that provide a more nuanced understanding of students’ behaviors and the most appropriate ways to address their needs.

Today, the tragic school shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, so close in time to each other, present an opportunity to either move Texas further toward research-based school discipline policies, proven to better ensure school and student safety – or, conversely, to move state and local policy backward, with regressive responses that are understandably rooted in fear, but that do more harm than good.

There are already early indicators of the potential for Texas schools and policymakers to take a wrong turn and move back in time to the “zero tolerance” approaches that have been disproven by research and experience.  One of those indicators is the spike in charges filed against Texas students for “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of a firearm” (which does not require actual possession of a firearm), which started in the immediate wake of the Parkland school shooting and continued through the end of the 2017-18 school year.  

Media coverage and information from attorneys representing students in these cases prompted Texas Appleseed to request data from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for these two offenses.  While it is always important for schools to follow up on any threat of violence, we heard stories from attorneys who represented children who had been arrested though they did not pose a threat, including:

  • A 12-year-old blind student who reacted to a bully by threatening him;
  • A 17-year-old student arrested and taken to jail for pulling the fire alarm at school;
  • An 11-year-old student who receives special education services and who learns in a self-contained classroom threatened to “Tase” the teachers who restrained him during a meltdown.
  • A 12-year-old student with a disability who was arrested and taken to detention for making a gun with his fingers and pretending to shoot make-believe creatures in an empty hallway at school.

Our data analysis confirms the spike in charges that we heard about anecdotally, showing:

  • A dramatic increase in referrals to Texas juvenile probation departments in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, with a 156% increase in referrals for terroristic threat, and a 600% increase in referrals for exhibition of firearms.  66% of the exhibition of firearms referrals were for threatening to exhibit a weapon, not actual possession.  
  • The spike was borne most by younger students, with a 69% increase in referrals for terroristic threat and a 762% increase in referrals for exhibition of firearms for 10-13 year-olds.
  • Black students are overrepresented in referrals, and were more than twice as likely as all other students to be referred to juvenile probation for terroristic threat or exhibition of firearms.

Though TJJD is not able to include information related to disability, anecdotal evidence also suggests students with disabilities are overrepresented in arrests.

Perspectives Regarding Students with Disabilities

by Adrian Gaspar, Disability Rights Texas

Students with disabilities are especially vulnerable to being targeted for terroristic threat arrests. During a crisis, students with disabilities can sometimes exhibit behaviors that are a manifestation of their disability, but untrained school staff can mistake them as being threatening. With thorough training and evidence-based intervention programs, schools may be able to avoid involving law enforcement when students with disabilities are involved. According to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) FY2016 data (the most recent published), 28.2% of students arrested were “eligible for special education” and 30.7% received moderate to high levels of mental health treatment.

Overreacting to behaviors when students with disabilities are going through these situations can cause further harm. The trauma of being referred to law enforcement resulting in an arrest can compound underlying socio-emotional issues that may be present from having a disability in the first place. In addition, students with disabilities experience higher rates of social stigma in schools compared to their peers without an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Returning to school following an arrest can add more peer victimization leading to isolation and create more mental health concerns for the student.

Schools must follow federal and state laws that require them to consider the student’s disability status when addressing concerning behaviors. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that schools refer to the student’s IEP before implementing any disciplinary actions. Specifically, IDEA requires schools to carry out a manifestation determination review which evaluates the relationship between a student’s disability(ies) and behavior that is the subject of disciplinary action. Moreover, student behaviors that may indicate a terroristic threat was made could be the result of an unknown or suspected disability. Schools are required to evaluate if a student might benefit from special education services.

While schools must respond to threats of violence, media articles that our team reviewed as part of our research for this report suggest that many schools are following a “zero tolerance” policy that fails to distinguish between students who actually pose a threat and those who have no ability or intention of harming anyone.  

What is a “Terroristic Threat”?

Under the Texas Penal Code, someone can be charged with “terroristic threat” if they threaten to commit any offense involving violence with the intent to:

  • Cause a reaction to the threat by an official with an agency that addresses emergencies;
  • Place any person in fear of serious bodily injury;
  • Prevent or interrupt the occupation or use of a public place;
  • Cause an interruption in some type of public service;
  • Place the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury; or
  • Influence the conduct or activities of a government entity.

The last three of these are charged as a felony offense.

What is “Exhibition, Use, or Threat of Exhibition or Use of Firearms”?

This offense is found in the Texas Education Code rather than the Penal Code. A person commits this offense if “in a manner intended to cause alarm or personal injury to another person or damage to school property,” they intentionally:

  • Exhibit or use a firearm in or on school property or on a school bus; or
  • Threaten to exhibit or use a firearm in or on school property or on a school bus, and have possession of or “immediate access to” a firearm;
  • Threaten to exhibit or use a firearm on school property or on a school bus.

The first two are charged as a felony, and the last as a class A misdemeanor offense.

As discussed below, the majority of students in Texas who are charged with an “exhibition of firearms” offense do not actually have possession of a firearm, but are instead charged with threatening to exhibit a weapon.

The Data

Texas Appleseed requested data from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department for referrals to juvenile probation for “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of firearms” for 2016, 2017, and January through May (the most current data available at the time of the request) of 2018.

From January through May of 2018, there were 1,212 referrals for terroristic threat and 259 referrals for exhibition of firearms. Referrals for terroristic threat in 2018 were nearly three times higher than they were in the same time period in 2017, and referrals for exhibition of firearms were seven times higher than they were in the same time period in 2017.

When assessing the data by school year, there is a large spike starting in February 2018 for both types of offenses, which did not occur in the previous school year.

Black students are overrepresented in referrals for these offenses, representing 24% of referrals for terroristic threat and 31% of referrals for exhibition of firearms, but only 13% of the student body population. Additionally, Black students are referred for both offenses at twice the rate of all other students. Male students are also overrepresented, accounting for 83% of referrals for terroristic threat, and 86% of referrals for exhibition of firearms.

Rate of Referrals for Terroristic Threat and Exhibition of Firearms by Race (January-May, 2018)

Most referrals for both offenses are for 13- to 14-year-olds, but the increase in referrals was the largest for 10- to 13-year-olds.  In January through May of 2018, there was a 69% increase in referrals for terroristic threat and a 762% increase in referrals for exhibition of firearms for 10- to 13-year-olds when compared to all of 2017.  

Assessed by county, Harris County had the highest number of referrals from a school-based location, accounting for 13% of all referrals for terroristic threat from a school-based location. Assessed by district, Houston ISD had the highest number of referrals from a school-based location, accounting for 5% of all referrals for terroristic threat from a school-based location.

Counties with the Highest School-Based Referrals for Terroristic Threat (January-May, 2018)

Percentages calculated out of 340 total school-based referrals.
Percentages calculated out of 340 total school-based referrals.

School Districts with the Highest School-Based Referrals for Terroristic Threat (January-May, 2018)

Percentages calculated out of 340 total school-based referrals.
Percentages calculated out of 340 total school-based referrals.

Lastly, most referrals for exhibition of firearms were for threatening to use a firearm (as opposed to actually possessing a firearm), accounting for 66% of all referrals for exhibition of firearms. Notably, there were no referrals for threatening to use a firearm in 2016 and only 5 referrals in 2017, but there were 170 referrals from January through May of 2018.

The Harms of Arrest and Court Contact 

A referral to juvenile probation can be a traumatic and stigmatizing experience for a student. Children as young as 10 years old can be removed from class in front of their peers, questioned by school administrators and police officers (sometimes without a parent present), handcuffed, and transported to the local juvenile probation facility where they are fingerprinted and questioned. Some students are then released to a parent or guardian, but sometimes students are detained, for up to two days, as they wait for a detention hearing before a juvenile court judge. Students who are 17 years old or older are considered adults, and are arrested and taken to jail to be booked.

Students who experience this type of punishment for school-based behaviors may begin to disengage from their teachers, peers, and school administrators, potentially at a time when meaningful relationships and close bonds are most needed to identify and respond to student needs. Research shows additional, long-term harms—even a first-time court appearance can increase the likelihood that children will drop out of high school. Additionally, punitive interventions, like arrest and court involvement, have been shown to decrease the likelihood of graduation by 70% and negatively impact employment and housing prospects, even years after the arrest. 

Over-reliance on arrests can also have a negative impact on the whole school.  Aggressive security measures result in alienation and mistrust which can create an adversarial relationship between school officials and students.  If students perceive school police practices as fundamentally unfair, the actions of school police can serve to trigger, not curb, misbehavior.  Relying on police to address student behavior can foster an environment that diminishes students’ views of teachers’ authority and can make it more difficult to maintain school order, safety, and academic achievement.

Research-Based Alternatives to Criminalization

Arresting students for behavior that falls short of presenting an immediate safety risk is indicative of a harmful zero tolerance approach to student behavior. There are a number of research-based alternatives that improve school safety but also show positive school- and student-outcomes.  Many of these — like Schoolwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SW PBIS) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) — focus on prevention, creating safer schools by improving overall school climate.  Others, like Restorative Discipline, focus on addressing the harm in a way that repairs and strengthens relationships in the school.  Many schools in Texas have adopted these models, or are in the process of putting them into place – but effective implementation can take time.

A Note Regarding Reporting Requirements in the Texas Education Code

A Texas law firm that represents school districts is advising educators that the Education Code requires reporting of a terroristic threat, and encourages them to notify law enforcement whenever a threat is made (the firm also notes that this will simplify the difficulty of interpreting the statute).

However, while Section 37.15 of the Code does require reporting, it also includes a provision that gives schools leeway for engaging in the threat assessment process first, noting that “notification is not required…if the person reasonably believes that the activity does not constitute a criminal offense.” Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.015(c).

Furthermore, if a law enforcement officer is part of the threat assessment team, the referral to the threat assessment team would serve as the statutorily required notification.

Another model – school-based threat assessment – is included as a recommendation in Governor Abbott’s “School and Firearm Safety Action Plan,” and targets precisely the dilemma schools confront when a student makes a threat of violence.  Particularly in the immediate wake of a school shooting, schools are understandably afraid of failing to take action, but overreacting can have dire consequences for a student. A research-based threat assessment model – implemented appropriately – allows schools to determine when a student’s behavior necessitates law enforcement involvement, and when it is instead more appropriately managed by referrals to counseling or other services.  It is a proven, pragmatic, low-cost approach to addressing threats of violence that ensures schools neither overreact or underreact. As an added bonus, the model fits nicely within a SW PBIS, SEL, or Restorative Discipline program for those districts that are already putting those alternatives into place.

This model was born out of work done by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education to determine how to prevent school shootings. One of the six principles that forms the foundation of the model is central to distinguishing it from a “zero tolerance” approach. According to that principle, “the central question in a threat assessment inquiry or investigation is whether a student poses a threat, not whether the student has made a threat.”

Watch this video from one Texas school district, which describes a “zero tolerance” approach to threats of violence, failing to distinguish between a student who poses a threat and a student who makes a threat.

The model relies on creation of a multidisciplinary team that consists not just of law enforcement, but also a member of the school faculty or administration, a mental health professional, and other professionals who regularly work in the school setting, such as teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors.  Perhaps most importantly – when a threat assessment is being conducted, the model suggests the team should include someone who knows the student whose behavior is being assessed. The multidisciplinary nature of the team and inclusion of someone who knows the student ensures that the context in which the behavior occurred is fully considered.  Rather than focus solely on the question of whether the student’s behavior falls within the elements of a Penal or Education Code violation, the team’s inquiry determines whether the student truly poses a safety risk.

One of the forensic psychologists who worked with the FBI and Secret Service to develop a threat assessment model for schools describes the difference between traditional threat assessment instruments and the model developed for schools:

The traditional law enforcement approach to threat assessment is focused on assassins and terrorists, but we are working primarily with kids. Kids make threats frequently when they are angry, upset, or just trying to gain some attention. In our first study, we found that the age group that makes the most threats to kill are elementary school students.  In almost all cases, students need counseling and discipline, not criminal charges. In school threat assessment, you must be careful not to over-react to student threats; the process must be calibrated to deal with kids, not adults.

The value of a research-based threat assessment model is in its ability to guide educators in distinguishing between “transient” threats, and “substantive” threats.  The difference between the two determines the consequence and response from adults:

Transient threats include a variety of qualitatively different threats that are not serious. Some examples are a student shouting “I’m gonna kill you” as a joke or playfully using his or her fingers to shoot another classmate. Another student might say “I’m gonna kill you” as a competitive statement during a game. Still other transient threats are expressions of anger that do not reflect a serious intent to harm someone, such as a student stating rhetorically “I’d like to kill that jerk” in anger but not actually possessing an intent or plan to kill anyone…Transient threats can be provocative and disruptive, but from a threat assessment perspective, they do not reflect a real intent to harm others.

In contrast to transient threats, substantive threats are behaviors or statements that represent a serious risk of harm to others…[S]ubstantive threats are characterized by qualities that reflect serious intent, such as planning and preparation, recruitment of accomplices, and acquisition of a weapon. Examples of likely substantive threats include a student threatening “I’ll get you next time” after a fight and refusing mediation for the dispute, or a student who threatens to stab a classmate and is found to have a knife in his or her backpack.

Dewey G. Cornell, Overview of the Virginia Threat Assessment Guidelines pp. 2-3 (2018).

Use of a research-based threat assessment model shows the majority of threats (70%) are transient.  A threat assessment model does not ignore transient threats, but the response would be proportional and would not call for the same response needed for substantive threats.  Even “substantive” threats may not necessitate law enforcement involvement.

Schools using threat assessments resort to expulsion or arrest in only about 1% of all cases.  Based on Texas data, this could mean roughly 15 law enforcement referrals rather than the more than 1400 already made in 2018.

A zero tolerance approach that fails to distinguish between transient and substantive threats, arresting every student who makes a threat, makes poor use of expensive law enforcement and juvenile and criminal justice system resources and unnecessarily criminalizes students.  Students may still face consequences for their behavior – but the consequence should be proportionate and aim to teach students why even a threat of violence is harmful.  In the innumerable media stories reporting arrests of Texas students in 2018, many indicated that law enforcement had already determined that the threat wasn’t substantive.

Experts in its use emphasize that a school-based threat assessment model should be part of a tiered approach to campus safety, with the primary focus on prevention and creation of healthy school climates.  The research conducted by the Secret Service uncovered the importance of Threat assessments should not supplant approaches like SW PBIS, SEL, and Restorative Justice, but should become part of a continuum that includes them.

How Many Texas Schools Use Research-Based Approaches to School Safety?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is unclear.  The Texas Education Agency (TEA) does not collect comprehensive information about the kinds of programs that schools may be using to address safety challenges.  

However, the TEA and several of Texas’ Education Service Centers (ESCs) have information and resources for schools and districts interested in adopting research-based methods of ensuring safe and healthy school climates.

The Region 4 ESC is the Lead ESC for the Texas Behavior Support Initiative (TBSI), a state-level training initiative designed to provide SW PBIS training to school districts across Texas. The Texas Behavior Support (TBS) Network connects school districts to SW PBIS trainings, fidelity assessments, and resources, including information about starting SW PBIS programs and costs. Additionally, TBS provides information and trainings on Restorative Discipline Practices and how restorative discipline and SW PBIS can be used effectively together.

In addition to these resources, the Texas School Safety Center is offering free training to educators interested in learning more about the threat assessment model.  There are several trainings scheduled for the summer of 2018.

For more information about research-based approaches that contribute to positive school climates and increase school safety, see the Best Practices section of Texas Appleseed’s report, Dangerous Discipline: How Texas Schools are Relying on Law Enforcement, Courts, and Juvenile Probation to Discipline StudentsAnother report, published by Texans Care for Children focused on school-based supports for children affected by Hurricane Harvey, contains information about research-based strategies for supporting student mental health and positive school climates.

State & Local Policy Recommendations

The lifelong trauma and stigma of being unnecessarily arrested and charged with “terroristic threat” or “exhibition of firearms” can have a devastating impact on a student’s outcomes.  Overreacting to threats made by students in frustration or anger does little to ensure school safety and may ultimately have the opposite effect.

Texas schools have an opportunity to instead embrace a research-based approach that addresses safety concerns, avoiding the potential harm to students.  

  • In 2019, the Texas Legislature should provide funding for research-based, multi-tiered approaches to school safety that include a threat assessment model, and require school districts to indicate in their safety plans which research-based approaches their schools are utilizing.
  • Texas school districts should prioritize a tiered, research-based approach to school safety that includes a threat assessment team model.
  • Texas schools should take advantage of the free training being provided by the School Safety Center this summer.

Young, Alone, and Homeless in the Lone Star State: Policy Solutions to End Youth Homelessness

The mental struggle that kids like me endure is not cliché.  It is not something you can be taught.  People’s thought processes are exclusive to their struggle.  Since you are not that person.  Since you have not endured what they have endured, you will not be able to understand where they come from.  Even if they explain themselves to you, you will never be able to fully understand where they are coming from. When they get in those situations or those fits of rage, fits of depression, when they feel like no one can help and they’re just out…All you have to do is be considerate to the possibility that this could happen to me…Once you open up that part of you, you are better received by us.

— C.F., Houston youth

Texas Appleseed became interested in systemic problems that fuel youth homelessness as a result of its work on other child- and youth-focused projects. We frequently saw children and young people whose juvenile justice involvement or problems at school were the result of homelessness or housing instability.  We met former foster youth who reported that they were inadequately prepared for adulthood when they aged out and, consequently, ended up on the streets for some period of time.  And our fair housing work has revealed to us the difficulties that communities and families across the state struggle with caused by the lack of affordable and safe housing.

Our interest led to a partnership with the Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS), an organization that also has a long history of advocating for young people in Texas.  Their membership of service providers and partnership with the state on Youth Count Texas!, a statewide look at youth homelessness mandated by the 84th Texas Legislature, make them experts in the issue.

Watch this short PSA about Youth Count Texas!

In the summer of 2016, Texas Appleseed and TNOYS began our research for this report, assisted by pro bono partners Vinson & Elkins LLP.  Our research included:

  • Over 100 interviews with young people who had experienced or were experiencing homelessness in Texas.
  • More than 50 interviews conducted by Vinson & Elkins’ team of pro bono volunteers with school homeless liaisons, juvenile justice stakeholders, members of law enforcement, foster care stakeholders, and service providers.
  • Data requests to Texas agencies that serve youth or touch on issues related to youth homelessness.
  • Research around existing programs and best practices.

What we discovered over the course of this research is that the issue of youth homelessness is one that is called by different names depending on the system the youth touches.  If a Texas youth is on the street, is picked up by law enforcement, and is under the age of 17, she is a “runaway,” a status offender who is referred to the juvenile justice system for rehabilitation.  If the youth instead appears in a shelter and the shelter contacts the child welfare system, she may be deemed a victim of abuse or neglect and placed in the foster care system for protection.  Thus the same youth, depending on which system she encounters first, is either a victim or an offender.

If a young person is not living on the street but is “doubled up” and living with friends or relatives, whether or not she is deemed homeless depends on which system of services she tries to access.  Her school would count her as homeless, entitling her to educational services and protections, but the community organization her school might refer her to for services may not, making her ineligible for their help.  The same youth is in one setting “homeless” and in another is not.

This is perhaps one of the clearest findings from the research that Texas Appleseed and TNOYS have done for this report: A disjointed policy and funding approach to youth who are without a home results in disjointed services.  Reducing or resolving the issue of youth homelessness and improving outcomes for young people is going to require a cohesive approach that brings all child-serving systems together to provide a full continuum of services.

Finding solutions is critical.  Research shows that young people who encounter homelessness are at high risk of poor outcomes, including:

  • Educational failure.  Youth who are homeless are more likely to be retained a grade or drop out altogether.
  • Juvenile or criminal justice contact.  Criminalization of homelessness and survival behavior may lead to justice system contact, which heightens the risk for ongoing homelessness.
  • Victimization.  Youth who are homeless are at high risk for becoming victims of crime, including human trafficking.
  • Health and mental health problems.

The goal of our report is to identify multi-system policy solutions that could prevent youth homelessness or provide for better interventions to ensure youth who encounter homelessness get back on their feet quickly.  We hope to shed light on what C.F. asked us to consider: how policymakers and stakeholders, understanding the reality that homelessness could happen to any one of us, can better open ourselves to compassionate, caring responses that are not only better for young people but better for our communities as a whole.

A Snapshot of the Problem of Youth Homelessness

No single data source in Texas accurately documents the magnitude of the homeless youth problem, however data obtained for this report from multiple state agencies, publicly available data, and a legislatively mandated report on Youth Homelessness in Texas (2016) indicate that:

  • Young children experience homelessness when their families lose housing, but they usually remain in the company of an adult or guardian.
  • The number of unaccompanied students who experience homelessness jumps dramatically between 8th and 9th grades, the number of runaways picked up by law enforcement or referred to juvenile probation increases beginning at age 13, and the majority of children reported as running away from a foster care placement are between the ages of 15 and 17.  A high percentage of surveyed youth experiencing homelessness (nearly 50%) report becoming homeless after turning 18.
  • The reasons for homelessness between ages 13 and 24 include one or more of the following: escaping abuse or neglect at home or in foster care, being rejected by parents and forced to leave home, aging out of foster care, and physical and/or behavioral health problems.
  • A high percentage of young people who become homeless identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) and, in many instances, their parent(s) have rejected them for their sexual orientation.  Young people of color and those with disabilities— particularly mental health problems—are overrepresented among youth who are homeless.
  • Seventeen-year-olds who are homeless are in a “no man’s land”—too young to sign a lease or enter an adult shelter, perhaps too old to be likely to be viewed by law enforcement as a missing child, and largely overlooked by Child Protective Services, which (particularly when stretched thin) may prioritize younger children.
  • Few shelters exist for young people under age 18, and some require parental consent.  Safety concerns discourage young adults from staying in shelters with older clientele.

[T]he general population, unfortunately, hasn’t been…educated to the fact that homeless youth do exist.  They are usually hidden.  They are very good at hiding.  So you may not see them, but they are out there.

  North Texas service provider

How youth who are without a home are viewed—as a runaway needing to be returned home or housed in a hard-to-find emergency shelter, a status offender whose homelessness is criminalized in the justice system, an abused child needing the state’s protection, or a youth on the threshold of adulthood who can make it on her or his own—depends on their age and how they intersect with education, law enforcement, justice, child welfare, and health care systems in different communities across Texas.

Educational Outcomes for Students Experiencing Homelessness

I started walking around the neighborhood, and I was just crying thinking to myself what am I going to do? Now I’m homeless, and I’m 17.  I’m supposed to be in school.  That’s all that ran through my head — school, school, school.     — C.J., Houston youth

Young people interviewed for this report confirm that school is often a place where they can still experience a sense of normalcy, despite the hardships associated with insecure housing.

Both state and federal governments prioritize supports for students experiencing homelessness to ensure they stay in school, yet these students remain more likely to repeat a grade, drop out, be disciplined at school, and be chronically absent—all of which increase their risk for future justice system involvement and repeat bouts of homelessness.

In the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data was made available, there were more than 113,000 students enrolled in Texas public schools. Considering student population size, that amounts to about 22 homeless students per thousand students enrolled.  , are unaccompanied by an adult.  In addition:

  • The number of students identified by Texas schools as homeless grew by about 12% between the 2012-13 and 2014-15 school years.
  • Urban areas in Texas have the highest number of homeless students. (Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas ISDs accounted for 12% of homeless students statewide in 2014-15.)

Top 15 Districts with the Highest Count of Homeless Students (Accompanied & Unaccompanied), Ranked by Count (School Year 2014-15)

Many rural and suburban districts have the highest rate of students identified as homeless.  (For the same school year as the above chart (2014-15), Hull-Daisetta, Gustine, Prairie Lea, and Iredell ISDs had the highest rates of homeless students.)

  • When assessed by region, Abilene, Amarillo, and Victoria had the highest rates of students experiencing homelessness given their total student enrollment in the 2014-15 school year.
  • and disabled students are slightly more overrepresented among students experiencing homelessness.  
  • Males and females are about evenly represented among homeless youth, data show.

Texas Education Agency data indicate that the majority of students who are homeless are not “living on the street,” but are sharing housing with friends or relatives where they have no legal right to stay and can be forced to leave at any point.

Academic Performance

Each year in Texas, 1,000 students identified as homeless repeat a grade and 1,400 drop out.  Available data indicate:

  • Students experiencing homelessness are five times more likely to repeat a grade in middle school and 2.5 times more likely to repeat a grade in high school than their counterparts in secure homes.
  • Young people who are homeless are 10 times more likely to drop out of school.

It’s really, really hard.  When I was going to school and back, it was really hard being homeless. Sometimes you don’t really have the best clothes, and people are making fund of you.  People say ‘ewww she’s wearing the same pants she wore last week.’  It’s just because you don’t have many clothes.

  — C.M., Houston youth

School Discipline and Homelessness

Texas Appleseed has conducted extensive research and reporting on the impact of removing children from the classroom (“exclusionary discipline”) for minor misbehavior as a predictor of a young person’s future involvement in the justice system.  This phenomenon is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Despite state and federal supports to keep homeless students in school, data show that exclusionary school discipline policies are impacting these students at higher proportions than their peers with secure housing—effectively pushing them out without acknowledging that their traumatic experiences and insecure housing are likely impacting their behavior at school.

Unaccompanied students who are homeless who attend school in Texas are:

  • twice as likely to be referred to In-School Suspension (ISS);
  • 2.5 times more likely to be suspended from school (OSS); and
  • five times more likely to be referred to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program.

Overall, at least 11,000 students who are homeless receive in-school suspensions each school year.  The most common reason is violating student codes of conduct – the lowest level of disciplinary violation.

At least 7,000 students who are homeless receive out-of-school suspensions in Texas each school year, and at least 2,500 are referred to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP).  In both instances, the majority of these two kinds of out-of-school placements are also for code of conduct violations, not for fighting or drug possession.

Homeless students of color and those receiving special education services are referred to ISS, OSS, and DAEPs at higher rates.

Underfunding of School Supports for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Many of the state and federal mandates to serve students who are homeless fall on the schools, yet inadequate funding leaves these students underserved and under-identified.

Specifically the federal McKinney-Vento Act, recently reauthorized as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows students who are homeless to attend their school of origin or the school in the attendance area where their family resides even if they lack residency documents and immunization records.

A significant challenge facing many school districts is the underfunded requirement that they provide transportation even if students who are homeless move out of a school’s attendance zone or outside the school district’s boundaries.

To read more about Texas homeless liasons’ experiences, read the results of the TNOYS survey here.
To read more about Texas homeless liasons’ experiences, read the results of the TNOYS survey here.

School districts and charter schools are also required to designate homeless liaisons to identify homeless students and facilitate their enrollment and school attendance.  School liaisons report being underfunded and frequently having to juggle these responsibilities with other tasks.

In the 2015-16 school year, from the U.S. Department of Education, which the TEA distributed to school districts through a competitive sub-grant process.

  • Each year , or roughly 10 percent of the total school districts in the state. Many more districts serve homeless students.

In addition, all school districts and charter schools receiving Title I, Part A funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act are required to set aside some of this money to serve students who are homeless.

  • The federal has reported that schools have a disincentive for identifying students as homeless due to the costs associated with meeting their needs.

While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not play a role in funding or overseeing educational requirements for youth experiencing homelessness, HUD does require that Continuum of Care entities demonstrate that they are helping identify students, linking these students to services, and encouraging their enrollment in schools. However, lack of oversight and technical assistance from HUD limits the impact of these requirements.

The Texas Education Code entitles students who are homeless to many of the same educational rights afforded by the federal McKinney-Vento Act and more.  For example:

  • A homeless student’s to his or her new school (if applicable) within 10 working days.
  • Partial credit must be provided to students experiencing homelessness who change schools during the school year.
  • must be provided to students who are homeless.
  • A student who is homeless is also entitled to admission in any Texas school district.

Significantly, the State of Texas does not appropriate state funds specifically to educate homeless children and youth, or to comply with state or federal mandates to serve this population.

We know we have a lot of homeless unaccompanied youth, but they don’t self-identify so we’re having difficulty identifying those [kids].  We know they’re there, but we’re not getting them…There’s a stigma attached to homelessness…A lot of times these kids are on their own so they’re not going to identify because they don’t want to be picked up by CPS.  They don’t want any outside intervention.

— ISD Homeless Liaison

Summation & Findings

Irrespective of their being without a secure home, many students continue to attend school—making the education system a critical player in identifying youth who are homeless and connecting them with support services.  These findings point to the funding and policy gaps that create barriers to serving this population:

Finding:  While the number of students identified as homeless in Texas has grown over the last four school years, the high percentage of districts in Texas that did not identify any homeless students suggests barriers to identification may still exist —including inadequate funding to provide mandated services to homeless students.

Finding:  Schools are an important resource in identifying young people experiencing homelessness and connecting them with outside services and supports, yet few are participating in “point-in-time” counts, an important process for determining how many young people need access to supports and services provided by entities outside the school setting.   

Finding:  Homeless liaisons in Texas school districts are not always adequately resourced, particularly given the breadth of tasks they perform and the importance of their role, and many have to divide their time between competing duties.

Finding:  Texas students who are homeless experience poor academic outcomes and are significantly more likely than their peers to repeat a grade or drop out of school—with Black and special education students overrepresented in this cohort.

Finding:  Texas students who are homeless are experiencing exclusionary discipline at disproportionate rates—with the majority of referrals for low-level code of conduct violations rather than for behavior that poses a safety threat.

Youth Homelessness & the Juvenile or Criminal Justice Systems

Youth homelessness intersects the juvenile or criminal justice systems in several ways.  A prior conviction, even a misdemeanor, can make renting an apartment difficult—and poor transition planning for life after foster care, or upon leaving a juvenile facility or lock-up, can make it much harder for a young person to secure stable housing.

Listen to this description of the way a parent’s criminal justice system involvement can lead to youth homelessness.

This report is particularly focused, however, on what is sometimes referred to as the “criminalization” of homelessness—when running away from home or a foster care placement or when actions linked to lack of secure housing (curfew violations, panhandling, camping) may be punished as violations of the law.

Because being homeless also increases a young person’s risk of becoming a victim of crime—it is critical to change the ways in which city ordinances, law enforcement, and the juvenile and criminal justice system contribute, however unwittingly, to the challenge of homelessness.

Crime Data Tell the Story

More than half of homeless youth reported being arrested at some point.

-and almost 33% of young people participating in Youth Count Texas! reported legal problems or a prior conviction.

Young people who are homeless .

One survey of youth found that while living on the streets.

Data from Youth Count Texas! indicate 34% of youth had experienced child abuse or neglect, 23% had experienced sexual assault, and almost 17% had been a victim of physical or sexual assault on the streets.

About one in five of nearly 1,000 youth recently interviewed in 13 cities across the U.S. and Canada reported being victims of trafficking.

Of those, 95% had a history of child abuse or neglect, and 63% had been involved with the child welfare system.

Service providers note that those under 18 are particularly vulnerable, because traffickers know that minors cannot access services without providers notifying Child Protective Services, something that these young people want to avoid.

People were like, “Baby girl, you don’t have it? I can get your nails done.  I can get you a car.  All you gotta do is love me and be with me.  Be my baby girl.”

  — C.J., Houston youth

When Running Away is Criminalized

Youth who are homeless have often run away from either a foster care placement or the home of a parent or guardian.  In Texas, law enforcement’s handling of recovered runaway minors varies from county to county.  In some counties, if they are not , they are taken to a juvenile detention center, and the local juvenile probation department determines next steps.  Others make use of an if available. These data on runaway youth are concerning:

* Nearly 6,000 children (ages 10 to 16) and more than 450 17-year-olds were arrested in 2015 for running away.

* Each year in Texas, around system for having run away.

* About in Texas in 2016.

  • While children reported missing may include youth who were abducted or lost, 90 percent are runaways.
  • Research shows that 77% of runaway youth return (or are returned) within a week; 15% are gone for one to four weeks; and 7% are missing for more than a month.

Young people in Texas under the age of 17 are considered “juveniles” by the and are not prosecuted criminally.  Instead, they are referred to juvenile probation departments and may be civilly adjudicated for “delinquent conduct,” or are referred for  (CINS offenses) in juvenile court.  CINS offenses, also referred to as status offenses, are offenses only by virtue of the child’s status as a minor.  In Texas, .

I had left my house, and they got me for being a runaway.  I was very shocked at how strict..the [punishments] were for being a runaway…I was in a detention facility for two months, and my mom wouldn’t get me out.  So then I went to a placement facility out in Bryan, Texas.  I did my year of probation out there.

  — C.F., Houston youth

The number of runaway referrals to juvenile probation departments is not driven by youth population ().  For example, Harris County has a higher child population, but Dallas County has a higher number of referrals for runaways.

Top 15 Counties with the Highest Total Runaway Referrals to Probation and Total Runaway Youth Referred to Probation, Ranked by Total Referrals (Fiscal Year 2015)

[1]National Center for Health Statistics (2017). Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates of the resident population of the United States (April 1, 2010, July 1, 2010-July 1, 2016), by year, county, single-year of age (0, 1, 2, .., 85 years and over), bridged race, Hispanic origin, and sex. Prepared under a collaborative arrangement with the U.S. Census Bureau. Available online from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/bridged_race.htm as of June 26, 2017, following release by the U.S. Census Bureau of the unbridged Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates by 5-year age groups. [Retrieved 7/8/2017]
[1]National Center for Health Statistics (2017). Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates of the resident population of the United States (April 1, 2010, July 1, 2010-July 1, 2016), by year, county, single-year of age (0, 1, 2, .., 85 years and over), bridged race, Hispanic origin, and sex. Prepared under a collaborative arrangement with the U.S. Census Bureau. Available online from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/bridged_race.htm as of June 26, 2017, following release by the U.S. Census Bureau of the unbridged Vintage 2016 postcensal estimates by 5-year age groups. [Retrieved 7/8/2017]
  • While urban counties tend to have the highest numbers of runaway referrals, some suburban and rural counties have a comparatively high given their child population.
  • The six Texas counties with the highest rate of runaway referrals are Brazos, Hockley, Gray, McLennan, Howard, and Ward.
  • The six Texas counties with the largest number of youth reported missing in 2016 are: Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, Tarrant, and Hidalgo.

Studies indicate that many more young people run away than are reported missing to law enforcement.

Of the parents or caretakers who did not report the youth missing, most indicated they either knew where the child was, did not think the police were needed, or the child was not gone long enough to make a report.

The demographics of runaway youth in FY 2015 in the 15 Texas counties with 50 or more runaways referred to juvenile probation found: an average age of 15; a majority enrolled in school (73.7%); and police as the overwhelming source of the referrals (97%).  Girls are overrepresented among Texas runaways, particularly Hispanic girls.  Black youth of both genders were overrepresented among youth referred to juvenile probation for running away.

For a national perspective on the intersection between juvenile justice and youth homelessness, see this project from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
For a national perspective on the intersection between juvenile justice and youth homelessness, see this project from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.

Interviews with police officers reveal their need and desire for specialized training to make them more aware of issues surrounding homelessness and to sensitize them to the trauma histories that may affect youth’s behavior and responses to police officers.

Secure Detention of Runaways

While federal law for runaways, there are exceptions for youth who are charged with violation of a valid court order (the “VCO” exception).  A VCO exception can apply if a one-time runaway on probation gets into trouble at school, stays out past city-imposed curfews, or runs away again—potentially leading to their being detained in a secure juvenile facility.

It is important to note that most young people who run away are not simultaneously committing serious crimes, even when they are charged with something other than a status offense.  The vast majority of additional charges are additional runaway violations, VCOs (which could stem from the runaway charge itself), and misdemeanor crimes that rarely warrant detention.

It is also true that some Texas counties use detention for runaways more often than others.

Top 15 Counties with the Highest Number of Runaway Youth Detained, Ranked by Count (Fiscal Year 2015)

*Percentage calculated out of total youth detained
*Percentage calculated out of total youth detained

Of these 15 counties (see above chart), the five with the highest number of youth staying in detention for two or more days are McLennon (46), Hidalgo (19), Harris (16), Bexar (15), and El Paso (10).

The low percentage of these cases requiring prosecution in any one year indicates that these cases could be safely addressed outside the juvenile system.  Of the , 1,983 resulted in a supervisory caution, and 493 had their cases dismissed by juvenile probation.  In fact – a mere 8 percent of these cases were sent to court.

Transition Out of the Juvenile or Criminal Justice System

When a youth is ready to leave either a county probation juvenile facility, or a state secure facility run by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), .  This can also lead to youth being held in secure facilities longer.

Though we do not know how many children, statewide, are unable to return home after being in a county juvenile facility, our interviews with stakeholders suggest that it is a common problem.  We do know that in FY 2015, DFPS indicated that an indicator that a parent refused to allow a child to return after he or she was out of the home for some reason.  It is reasonable to assume that many of these youth were transitioning out of a juvenile facility.

While TJJD offers youth who cannot return home from a state secure facility a subsidy to support living expenses, the program is rarely utilized.  In 2015, only 17 youth were enrolled in the “Subsidized Living Support Program.”  This is likely because the eligibility requirements make it difficult for youth to qualify.  For example, complete an independent living preparation curriculum and have enough personal savings to pay all deposits and the first month’s rent for an apartment.

County & Municipal Curfew Ordinances

Some Texas counties and municipalities have created an additional status offense not named in state law: violation of a day or nighttime curfew.  Curfew ordinances prohibit young people from being in public places during certain hours—and violating them can push homeless youth into the court system.  

Despite the fact that curfew violations are status offenses that only apply to children, they are in adult criminal courts in Texas.

  • In FY 2015, through Texas courts—the majority in municipal courts, since they are violations of a municipal ordinance.

Top 10 Cities for Prosecution of Juvenile “Violation of Local Daytime Curfew” Cases (Fiscal Year 2015)

           *Municipal courts by city
           *Municipal courts by city
  • Young people may be fined up to $500 for a curfew violation and, if convicted, will have a criminal record.

Survival Behavior & Criminalization of Homelessness—Ages 17 & Older

in the eyes of the Texas Penal Code and are not subject to Family Code provisions related to running away or municipal codes regarding curfew.

Older youth who are homeless may be subject to criminal prosecution for camping, sitting or lying on a public sidewalk, panhandling, or Texas Penal Code violations like theft or trespass.  More than 200 young people ages 17 to 24 according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Summation & Findings

Too often, homeless youth commit minor offenses that introduce them to the juvenile justice system; however, being involved in the justice system also pushes young people into becoming homeless.  Effective policy solutions must take this into account.

Finding: Homelessness carries increased risks of victimization for youth, including heightened risks of human trafficking.

Finding: Young people who are picked up by law enforcement after running away from home are met by varying responses, depending on the county where they are found.  In some counties, youth are detained, despite federal law prohibiting use of detention for runaways.

Finding: The high number of youth in Texas who run away from home more than once shows that the current response is ineffective.  Young people who run away from home are often running from abuse, neglect, or family conflict and need a therapeutic, rather than court-based, response.

Finding: Symptoms and survival behavior associated with youth homelessness is criminalized, leading to a cycle of juvenile or criminal justice system involvement that does little to meet the needs of youth and instead serves to perpetuate homelessness.

Finding: The transition out of a juvenile secure facility is a point at which youth are at risk of homelessness, if their family is not willing or able to welcome them back home.

Youth Homelessness & the Foster Care System

As is true of the juvenile justice system, the foster care system intersects with youth homelessness at several junctures.  First, runaways who are not able to be returned home immediately may ultimately be placed in the state’s care for a longer term if an investigation substantiates concerns surrounding abuse or neglect. As discussed in the last chapter, in some counties, runaways are taken directly to emergency shelters instead of being referred to the juvenile system – but in many places, they are first detained in a juvenile facility. And, as discussed, some young people who are released from the juvenile system are abandoned at that point by family and referred to DFPS when a family member refuses to pick them up.

But, in addition to responding to runaway and abandoned youth, the foster care system (like the juvenile and criminal justice systems) may also contribute to their number.  Even under the best circumstances, foster care placements sometimes result in a youth running away.  But in Texas, the foster care system has been under considerable strain with too few appropriate placement options and high caseworker turnover.  Problems within the foster care system can contribute to youth running away from placements for a variety of reasons.

In addition, every year around 1,000 Texas youth “age out” of the foster care system on their 18th birthday.  that these young people are at heightened risk of homelessness.  Many of the young people we interviewed during our research had aged out of the Texas foster care system.  Many said they opted not to extend care beyond age 18 because they had such a bad experience in foster care.  While DFPS is a line of defense against youth homelessness – systemic problems within foster care may also contribute to the problem of homelessness.

Foster Youth Runaways

Youth in foster care may encounter temporary or longer-term homelessness if they run away.  In FY 2016, , however DFPS acknowledges that its case management system does not easily track runaways or those who are found and returned to care.

  • In FY 2016, it took an average of six weeks to locate runaways from foster care placements.
  • Most youth ran from an closely followed by foster homes for children with emotional disorders, and residential treatment centers.

In 2015, on a daily basis.

Of the 1,068 youth who ran away from a foster care placement in FY 2016:

  • 306 ran away more than once;
  • The highest number ran from placements in Bexar, Harris, and Dallas counties.

Running from foster care is not unique to Texas.  A found that youth who had been in foster care are over three times more likely to run away from home than youth who had never lived in a foster home.  The study also found that verbal, physical, and sexual abuse before the age of 18 were all correlated with a higher runaway rate.

Interviews with homeless youth and service providers revealed that Child Protective Services (CPS) does not place a priority on finding runaway youth ages 17 and older—and they are essentially “on their own.”

I got off the bus, and I started walking. I had no idea where I was going.  I had no idea where I was.  I was in some random town at the time.  I didn’t care where I was.  All I cared about was that I was safe.  In my eyes, that’s all I cared about.  The fact that I was safe.

  — R.G., Austin youth (on running away from foster care)

Foster Care & the Juvenile Justice System

Foster youth who run from a placement are at risk of juvenile justice involvement, or criminalization related to the symptoms of homelessness, as discussed in the previous chapter.  According to national estimates, as many as 30% of youth involved with the child welfare system are involved with the juvenile justice system.

on youth who have been involved in both the foster care and justice systems to determine how many Texas youth are dually involved.   However, in the Youth in Transition Database—show that 36% of the surveyed foster youth had been “incarcerated” at some point, which underestimates the percentage intersecting the justice system, since not all will spend time in jail or prison.

Aging Out of Foster Care — Increased Risk for Homelessness

In Texas, nearly 1,200 youth age out of the foster care system every year.    Aging out of foster care is linked to a higher risk of becoming homeless.

While there is funding for support services to youth who age out of foster care, there are barriers to accessing these resources.  Congress passed the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Act in 1999   Federal funding for support services flows from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to its state agency counterpart, DFPS.  But collected in Texas as a condition of receiving Chafee grants underscores that this funding may not be stemming the tide of foster youth who find themselves homeless after aging out:

  • Among the first group of 17-year-olds surveyed, 16% reported being homeless at some point prior to aging out of care.
  • By the time they were 19 years old, 25% of this group reported being homeless in the two years since they had aged out of care, which is higher than the .
  • Two years later, within the previous two years.

Before a young person ages out of foster care in Texas, DFPS is required to provide life skills training and to promote their developing contacts with supportive adults who can be a resource after aging out through Circles of Support (COS) meetings.  Unfortunately, due to lack of resources and available caseworkers, prior to aging out, with little follow up to ensure that goals are met.

If a youth ages out of foster care and they’re not connected to a foster family or at least one significant caring adult, it’s a cliff. There are no resources for them, and they don’t have a lot of support.  Unfortunately, too many of them end up homeless or in jail.

  — Houston service provider

Homeless youth interviewed for this report also were critical of life skills courses offered through the foster care system—saying more life skills training is needed and should start as early as age 14.  Six classes— “Preparation for Adult Living” (PAL) — are offered to 16-year-olds to teach skills in core areas like job readiness, financial management, and housing.  Foster youth must complete all six classes to qualify for a “transitional living allowance” upon aging out, which provides up to $1,000 for rent or other costs associated with independent living.

Recent suggests that courses like PAL are not an effective way to teach life skills to young people.  Instead, intensive case management that is individualized to ensure a successful transition from foster care to independent living.

As one homeless young person said, “We need more help.  A lot more help.  Years of help.  Start at 14 and 15.  Help us get through it.

Frequent moves, scheduling conflicts, and lack of transportation make it difficult for foster youth to complete six PAL classes in the 12 months before aging out of care.

Summation & Findings

The state’s foster care system aims to protect children from abusive and neglectful home situations and to offer a safety net against homelessness.  Yet funding shortages, staff turnover, and policy gaps put young people aging out of foster care system at a severe disadvantage.

Policymakers, funders, and service providers need to address the family disruptions and crises that pull youth into foster care unnecessarily, remove barriers to sheltering homeless youth, and better prepare foster youth to live as independent adults.

Finding:  the number of youth who run from foster care placements.

Finding: Too many foster youth run from care in Texas, with some running more than once.  More should be done to ensure placement stability and prevent foster youth from running from care.

Finding: The average length of time a runaway youth is out of care (six weeks) leaves youth highly vulnerable to victimization and trafficking.  

Finding: Too many foster youth who age out of care age out into homelessness, indicating these young people are not prepared for adulthood.

Finding: DFPS’s “Supportive Independent Living Program” (SIL) is woefully underutilized, principally due to low reimbursement rates.

Finding: While the number of youth extending foster care beyond the age of 18 has increased, the average length youth stay in extended care is only 12 months.  Youth often leave prior to turning 21, abandoning support and services that could assist them in preparing for adult living.

Finding:  Foster youth who come into contact with the juvenile or criminal justice systems are at heightened risk for becoming homeless.

Youth Homelessness and Access to Physical & Behavioral Health Services

The hardest part was the physical toll it takes on your body because while your mental condition can be in a stable place — you’re not completely wrecked and depressed — you’re still living on the streets.  You don’t have a consistent way to stay clean.  You don’t have a consistent way to stay fed.  And you’re living on the streets so you’re subject to a lot of sicknesses, scars and bites.  The physical toll was almost unbearable.             

— C.F., Houston youth

Youth who are homeless are one of the most underserved and vulnerable populations in the U.S. when it comes to health care.  Many of these young people are not aware of available health services or how to access them—a complex, challenging process at best.

The changes inherent to adolescence, combined with the stresses of housing instability and a likely precarious family history, create a unique set of physical and mental health care challenges.  Many youth —including a physical disability, hospital discharge, mental illness, and substance abuse.

Easily remedied health issues can become major problems and more costly to treat without early access to care.  A case of mild dehydration can turn into an emergency case of heat stroke.  Keeping diabetes and asthma under control become more difficult without access to medication or a place to store it.  Living in crowded conditions or on the street exposes young people to communicable disease (tuberculosis and respiratory illnesses), stress, violence, and malnutrition. When they are so sick they are forced to seek help, youth who are homeless often turn to an emergency room.

In many instances, dispensing health care to a minor requires the consent of a parent or guardian—making it difficult, if not impossible, for a youth experiencing homelessness to get medical care.

Youth interviewed for this report and 20.6% of those surveyed for Youth Count Texas! identified dental care as a major unmet health care need.  Other needs identified by survey respondents include: hygiene supplies, 17.1%; showers and restrooms, 10.7%; emergency food, 18.7%; and routine medical care, 10.8%.  Among surveyed youth, 15% were pregnant and 31.8% already had a child—but barriers exist to their receiving prenatal care and medical attention for their children.

Behavioral / Mental Health

The faced by youth experiencing homelessness are depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal behaviors.

Trauma can have a more significant effect on brain development than poverty does.  Leading underscore the need to focus on “trauma-informed care” provided by the very systems—schools, foster care, and juvenile and criminal justice—that most frequently come into contact with youth who are at risk of becoming homeless or who already are homeless.

I think people don’t realize how high the prevalence of past trauma and abuse is among homeless youth.  I think some people believe, just like with adult homelessness, that it’s a moral failing. It’s something they did wrong rather than something that happened to them.  Along with the lack of understanding about having experienced trauma, people don’t understand the effects of trauma on the brain and  their ability to cope and so forth.

  — Austin service provider

A large percentage of this population abuses alcohol and drugs to self-medicate against stress and trauma, to feed an addiction, or to support themselves on the street.  It is not surprising that substance abuse contributes and/or co-exists with unaddressed mental health problems.  Data show the following:

  • Substance abuse rates for youth who are homeless can vary anywhere from 28% to 81%, according to , and co-occurring mental health problems are common.  
For more on improving behavioral health for youth experiencing homelessness, check out this report from TNOYS.
For more on improving behavioral health for youth experiencing homelessness, check out this report from TNOYS.
  • Nearly 47% of surveyed Texas youth who are homeless have experienced alcohol abuse or addiction, according to Youth Count Texas!
  • Youth who are homeless that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are at a greater risk of major psychiatric disorders and substance abuse than heterosexual homeless youth, according to the .
  • Drug abuse among homeless youth may also be linked to the overprescribing of psychotropic drugs in the foster care system.  

Barriers to Health Care Services for Youth who are Homeless

Youth experiencing homelessness over-rely on emergency room care because they have difficulty accessing care through community health sites serving low-income patients.  Health care research organization ECHO (Ending Community Homeless Coalition) found that:

  • 62 percent of surveyed homeless youth report visiting the emergency room in the prior six months;
  • 40 percent had been taken to a hospital, and 27 percent had been hospitalized.

According to ECHO, their overreliance on emergency rooms is due to lack of health insurance, inability to recognize and address health problems early, and their having few health service options. Lack of transportation, parental consent requirements, and other program eligibility criteria also make it difficult for youth who are homeless to find the health care they need.  For example:

  • Under the national Health Care for the Homeless Program created in 1985, community-based organizations across the country serve low-income populations with limited access to health care. There are 10 locations in Texas.  However, youth have a difficult time accessing care because parental consent is required.
  • A can “provide comprehensive home and community-based mental health services to children ages three to 18, up to a month before a teen’s 19th birthday, who have a serious emotional disturbance.”  However, the or be legally emancipated to receive services creates a barrier for youth who are homeless.
  • Being homeless a child or young adult for Medicaid or for Texas’ statewide (managed care Medicaid) to cover health care costs.

In Texas, Medicaid covers 2.59 million low-income children, and children account for 70.5% of those on Medicaid in Texas.

According to Texas Health and Human Services data, there are nearly 700,000 children under 18 who are uninsured in Texas, and 89.8% of them are eligible for Medicaid or CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) but are not enrolled.

Foster youth can qualify for Medicaid and to cover health care costs for several years after aging out at 18 (with different criteria determining scope of benefits)—but it is highly likely that homeless young people are among those eligible but not enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP.

  • Purchasing subsidized health insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchange is too costly for homeless young people.
  • While it is possible for youth who are homeless to access local health care options in some Texas communities—as well as food programs, their transient lifestyle, lack of transportation and documentation, and the complexity of the application process create major barriers.

The complexity around Texas’ laws on consent, confidentiality, and access to medical records (see full report) also create obstacles to youth obtaining physical and behavioral health care services.

Summation & Findings

Navigating physical and mental health care services, the complex eligibility criteria, application process, and insurance can be difficult even for those with plenty of resources and support.

To extend care to this vulnerable population of youth experiencing homelessness, state and federal policymakers will need to explore out-of-the-box ways to deliver care “where they are” and to recalibrate the balance between youth autonomy, youth safety, and parental prerogative.

Finding: Trauma looms large in the lives of youth who are homeless, making them hesitant to seek out help from unknown adults and complex health care systems.

Finding:  Minor consent laws are confusing, or unnecessarily complicated.

Finding:  Economic barriers prevent youth from obtaining health care.

Services & Supports for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

A continuum of quality services to help youth experiencing homelessness is central to meeting their immediate and future needs. Services must all be tailored to the individual circumstances of the youth they are designed to help and should be executed with a Positive Youth Development approach in mind. Services should also be trauma-informed and culturally competent.

This chapter outlines a number of recommended approaches and models for addressing youth homelessness, all of which are based on research. Some lend themselves to specific programs and services, some are more process-oriented, while others are a set of general principles. These recommendations are not mutually exclusive and may be bolstered when implemented in concert with one another. In our full report [LINK to PDF], we highlight best practices within each of these models.

This chapter also covers special populations in need of consideration and existing programs within Texas that assist with homelessness. Most of the state’s programs are also research-based. Finally, the chapter discusses federal, state, and local funding for services for youth experiencing homelessness in Texas.

The Frameworks and Program Models that Work

  • Collective Impact: Collective Impact stems from the idea that large-scale change requires cross-sector collaboration. In this model, a diverse group of stakeholders comes together with a shared vision for change. Working as a collective, stakeholders minimize gaps in policies and programs while building the community’s capacity to provide services.
  • Continuum of Services: This model helps assure that young people who are homeless do not fall between the cracks, as it guides and tracks them along a comprehensive set of services as they progress toward stability. The model is particularly apt for addressing the issue of youth homelessness because it emphasizes access to a full spectrum of services, which can meet the needs of youth with differing circumstances.
  • Family Strengthening & Reunification: Acknowledging that today’s society does not expect the average young person to support himself or herself until they reach a certain age – and that parental support is expected – this framework places high value in the family unit and works to strengthen that family unit when possible. Family strengthening and reunification efforts aim to improve relationships between youth and their families to help young people stay or return home.
  • Housing First: The Housing First model holds that the first step to serving homeless populations should be to provide them with stable places to live. The model diverges from other approaches to addressing homelessness in that it sets no preconditions for those seeking help. Many housing programs, particularly residential initiatives, require that clients first receive substance abuse counseling or participate in some other program before being placed. Proponents of Housing First often point out that offering immediate permanent housing to those living on the street is not only more humane than just offering temporary shelter or another comparable arrangement, but it is also more cost-effective for society.
  • Trauma-Informed Care: With differing circumstances at play resulting in a young person’s homelessness – from family issues to economic hardship to neglect – it is imperative that service providers use trauma-informed methods when working with homeless young people. Trauma-Informed Care is
  • Youth Development: The Interagency Work Group on Youth Programs describes positive youth development as “an intentional, prosocial approach that engages youth within their communities, schools, organizations, peer groups, and families in a manner that is productive and constructive; recognizes, utilizes, and enhances young people’s strengths; and promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and furnishing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.”

Top Three Categories of Programs and Services

A range of programs and services can be implemented within the frameworks highlighted earlier. With some overlap, they generally fit into three categories that are listed in the following table:

[1] “Clinical Model” (ND), webpage. Accessed September 9, 2017: http://www.fftllc.com/about-fft-training/clinical-model.html.           [2] Ibid.
[1] “Clinical Model” (ND), webpage. Accessed September 9, 2017: http://www.fftllc.com/about-fft-training/clinical-model.html. [2] Ibid.

Special Populations at High Risk for Negative Outcomes

Certain populations of youth experiencing homelessness are at a greater risk for negative outcomes. By being aware of the experiences and backgrounds of these populations, service providers can work with the young person to design appropriate, inclusive, and supportive programs to meet their needs. Some groups are overrepresented in the homeless youth population, including foster system-involved youth and LGBTQ youth. Our full report [LINK to PDF] explores characteristics of these high-risk groups and provides best practices for engagement.

  • Youth with Histories of Foster Care Involvement
  • Gang-Affiliated Youth
  • Human Trafficking Victims
  • Immigrant, Undocumented, and Refugee Youth
  • LGBTQ Youth
  • Native Populations
  • Pregnant and Parenting Youth
  • Youth in Rural Areas
  • Youth Under Age 18

People tell me not to think about the future, just to think about today. But you can’t do that when you have kids, because in the future, you don’t know if you’re going to be homeless. You don’t know if something will happen, and you have both of your kids on the street with you. You have to think about things like that.             — H.H., Dallas youth

Legislation Influencing Programs, Services & Data Collection

There is no single piece of legislation or single agency at the federal or state level that comprehensively directs and manages regulations and resources aimed at addressing the issues of youth homelessness. There are instead multiple pieces of legislation and multiple agencies, at both the federal and state levels, that are connected to the issue. This dynamic creates challenges for coordinating policies, programs, and services; it also produces ambiguity about stakeholder roles and accountability.

Major Federal Legislation | Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (1974) – The federal Family and Youth Services Bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families is responsible for distributing funding and technical assistance services related to Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs, which is earmarked for direct services for homeless young people, through basic center, transitional living, and street outreach programs.

Major Federal Legislation | McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987) – This funding strictly applies to supporting educational access and related rights for homeless students in K-12 public schools and is administered by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, depending on which agency’s definition of homelessness is being used and whether services are related to schooling or housing.

State Legislation | HB 679 (2015) – The 84th Texas Legislature required the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, in conjunction with the Texas Interagency Council for the Homeless, to conduct a study (published December 1, 2016) of youth homelessness in Texas and submit a report to the legislature outlining its findings and recommendations.

Regulation Conflicts

There is no consensus about what situation qualifies as “homeless,” with irregular and competing definitions causing confusion. Because multiple agencies work on this issue, it has led to varied eligibility criteria – creating more challenges.

If you’re dealing with the ISD, their definition of homeless is different than HUD’s definition of homeless, which might be different than a privately-funded housing program’s definition of homeless. And so everybody’s on a different page, and that’s challenging.

  — DFW service provider

Where’s the Money?

Dollars in prevention would be a really wonderful, refreshing thing.

  — Austin judge

The federal government is the primary funding source for programs devoted to youth homelessness.

Direct Federal Funding Sources for Services to Address Youth Homelessness

Funding Available through the State of Texas

While there are a handful of state-level funding streams and programs that aim to prevent youth homelessness, there are no funding streams or programs specifically devoted to serving youth experiencing homelessness.

[1] TDHCA, “Homeless Housing and Services Program (HHSP)” (ND), webpage. Accessed 8/23/17: http://www.tdhca.state.tx.us/community-affairs/hhsp/. [2] Based on calls I made to providers and local governments in each city that gets HHSP funds                        
[1] TDHCA, “Homeless Housing and Services Program (HHSP)” (ND), webpage. Accessed 8/23/17: http://www.tdhca.state.tx.us/community-affairs/hhsp/. [2] Based on calls I made to providers and local governments in each city that gets HHSP funds                        

Local/Private Funding

Because federal and state funding streams for homeless youth are insufficient, most service providers rely on private funding to support youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Service providers may also receive funding through their city or county, often via Community Development Block Grants or Community Services Block Grants, but such funding varies from place to place. In Austin there is an organization called the Religious Coalition to Assist the Homeless, which was created by an Austin City Council ordinance passed in 1996. Congregations from across the city pool resources that would otherwise go to city drainage fees (that are waived) to support emergency shelter beds, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and the services for the formerly homeless. Some of these funds support services for homeless youth and young adults in Austin.

Summation & Findings

Despite recent increased federal and state-level interest in understanding the needs of youth experiencing homelessness, there is still significant work needed in order to ensure availability and sustainability of a full continuum of services across Texas. The following findings and recommendations identify opportunities for policymakers to better support this vulnerable but resilient population.

Finding: Lack of funding has severely restricted the development and sustainability of a robust continuum of services to address youth homelessness. As a result, Texas lacks a clear and sustainable continuum of services that are appropriate for youth who are homeless or at-risk.

Finding: There are some strong programs in place in Texas to support services for youth who age out of foster care. These programs are under-funded. Furthermore, homeless youth, who may have similar histories of abuse, neglect, and trauma, and who may be without a parent or legal guardian, are not eligible for many of these services.

Finding: It is unclear at both the state and federal levels who is responsible for addressing youth homelessness. This ambiguity has resulted in a lack of leadership and accountability, conflicting regulations and expectations, and other challenges that have limited the success of strategies to end youth homelessness.

Finding: There is significant research available on best practices for serving young people experiencing homelessness. There are also many promising and innovative nonprofit programs serving youth who are homeless in Texas. Additionally, communities in Texas and across the country have the opportunity to learn even more about best practices for serving youth who are homeless through HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program.

Conclusion & Cross-System Policy Recommendations

While each chapter’s focus leads to a specific set of findings and recommendations, when we pull back and consider the data and research as a whole, we find several themes.  Based on the cross-system data we were able to analyze for this report, there is simply no question that homelessness is a significant problem impacting Texas’ youth.  While we need more and better data, the data is not needed to make the case that too many young Texans experience homelessness – rather, the data are important in helping us understand the best way to reach homeless youth and develop appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.

It is also clear that youth homelessness is not simply an economic or housing issue, but is often a family issue.  When a 15-year-old is on the streets, the problem is not caused by a lack of affordable housing – but more likely a familial issue.  While Texas has a prevention infrastructure in place, the state is not capitalizing on opportunities to prevent youth homelessness by ensuring that the problems that result in a youth running or getting pushed out of a home are addressed before conflict or crisis results in homelessness.  At the federal level, though the recent push to make the Department of Housing and Urban Development responsible for leading the charge to address youth homelessness looks promising in terms of the potential to bring new resources and housing supports for youth, it is critical that child welfare stakeholders maintain engaged in the provision of services and planning and decision-making processes. The issue of youth homelessness will not be addressed with housing alone.

Our cross-systems analysis also shows that youth homelessness touches many systems, including education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and health and mental health.  Solutions should draw upon the strengths of each system, while recognizing their shortfalls.  For example, schools are uniquely positioned to identify students who are homeless or at-risk and to serve as a resource for youth experiencing homelessness – and capacity should be commensurate with the potential for the benefits this system offers.  Many of the young people we interviewed had positive school experiences, and data overwhelmingly show that youth who ran away were still in school before they left home, and that many unaccompanied youth continue to attend school even after they become homeless.

Over the course of our research, it struck us that whether or not a homeless youth enters the child welfare or juvenile justice system seems arbitrary, and may often depend on where the youth lives, and on local priorities and capacity.  Yet, while each system carries risks for poor outcomes, each also offers benefits.  While system involvement may not be the first or best option, there are beneficial elements of each that could be replicated in policy solutions for youth experiencing homelessness in programs outside the CPS and juvenile systems. For example, although the child welfare system has major flaws that contribute to homelessness among young people who age out of foster care, it also offers critical supports that may be of value to young people who are homeless and who have experienced similar abuse, neglect, and other trauma but who are not system-involved.

We were also struck by the lack of ownership, accountability, and strategic coordination among state government agencies and stakeholders for addressing youth homelessness.  As a result, despite best efforts among nonprofit providers, Texas lacks an effective and sustainable continuum of services for homeless youth.  There is no state agency responsible for youth who are homeless in Texas and no agency that has stepped into the role.  In contrast, at the federal level, both the child welfare and housing agencies have taken leadership roles.

Although a number of government agencies at the federal level are demonstrating interest in addressing the issue of youth homelessness, that coordination is not without its limitations or challenges. For example, the failure to agree on a consistent definition of youth homelessness compounds problems associated with lack of ownership.

Finally, the glaring problem that we saw across systems is that services are severely and consistently underfunded.  Texas does not dedicate any state funding to meet the needs of unaccompanied homeless youth.  Federal funding is insufficient and with the exception of extemely limted RHY funding, has not traditionally been designed to meet youths’ needs.  Existing funding is disjointed, which results in disjointed services for youth.  Yet, the costs of not intervening are high: child welfare, juvenile justice, and emergency rooms are expensive.  Prevention and community-based alternatives are a more effective and less costly alternative.

Overarching Policy Recommendations

While each chapter addresses recommendations consistent with the chapter’s focus, there are a number of cross-system recommendations that emerge, based on the conclusions discussed above.

Policy Recommendation: Texas that is jointly led by DFPS and TDHCA, and specifically charged with:

  • identifying funding strategies and opportunities to support and sustain a full continuum of quality services for young people who are experiencing homelessness and who are at risk;
  • identifying and finding solutions to address issues in child-serving systems that may operate to push young people into homelessness or place them at higher risk of homelessness;
  • identifying and building upon the strengths of child-serving systems to address homelessness or youth who are at risk of homelessness.

Policy Recommendation: The Texas Legislature should create dedicated funding streams to support services for youth and young adults who are experiencing homelessness and/or who are at-risk within both the state child welfare and housing agencies. This proposed funding setup would mirror the federal funding landscape and reflect that youth homelessness is both a child welfare issue that involves the family and an affordable housing issue.

Some of these funding streams could be created by expanding programs that exist already. Texas should work to identify existing funding streams that may be able to fund services for youth who are homeless.

Policy Recommendation: The state should invest in strengthening prevention and early intervention services including family counseling services, and parenting skills. These services are proven to keep families together safely and prevent causes of youth homelessness, including running away and being kicked out.

Policy Recommendation: Texas should invest in initiatives that would raise public awareness about the services that exist, modeling a campaign after successful public health campaigns. Texas should also develop, frequently update, and make easily available a directory with information on services for young people who are homeless or at risk, including youth-appropriate shelter, street outreach, and transitional living services, as well as family crisis intervention services.

Policy Recommendation: Efforts addressing youth homelessness should include child welfare stakeholders, as well as stakeholders from other systems that can provide appropriate supports and services in keeping with the best practices outlined in this report.

Policy Recommendation: Benefits that serve to prevent homelessness for juvenile or CPS-involved youth, like SIL and education benefits, should be explored as potential models for meeting youth’s needs outside these systems in an effort to prevent homelessness.

Policy Recommendation: Youth-serving systems, including schools, should coordinate and cooperate in “point-in-time” counts that provide information about the extent and contributors of youth homelessness.

Policy Recommendations – Education & Youth Homelessness

Federal Government

Policy Recommendation: The federal government should provide more funding to support schools in complying with the McKinney-Vento Act (requiring districts to enroll and provide free transportation for students who lack a secure home) — so that lack of funding does not create a disincentive for schools to identify homeless students, who frequently do not self-identify due to stigma or shame.

Policy Recommendation: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should reassure schools that participation in “point-in-time” counts of homeless student will not violate student privacy laws — and should align its definition of “homeless” with the McKinney-Vento education definition.

Policy Recommendation: HUD should more closely monitor Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (HEARTH) requirements for Continuum of Care entities and project applicants to collaborate with schools, providing technical assistance where needed.

Policy Recommendation: The Administration of Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, should require recipients of RHY (Runaway and Homeless Youth) Program grants to show they are collaborating with local school districts.

Policy Recommendation: The U.S. Department of Education should require school districts receiving Title I funding or McKinney-Vento sub-grants to show that they are collaborating with local service providers as a condition of funding.

Texas Legislature

Policy Recommendation: Texas should provide funding to school districts to supplement federal funds.  One possibility might be a funding weight for homeless students that would entitle districts to a higher level of funding, similar to that created for special education students.

Policy Recommendation: Alternatively, Texas should create a state funding stream to support homeless liaisons, school counselors, and other resources for homeless students, particularly for smaller districts that struggle to meet student’s needs.

  • As a first step, Texas could create state-funded grants for districts with the highest rate of homeless students, so that rural districts with high rates may be eligible even when they do not fall within the districts with the highest overall count of homeless students.

Policy Recommendation: Create incentives for youth to stay in school and work toward higher education goals, and find ways to eliminate barriers to higher education for homeless youth.  Several steps could be taken toward this goal:

  • Increase accessibility to the high school equivalency test by waiving or subsidizing the $145 fee for homeless youth.
  • Designate homeless liaisons at all public colleges and universities to create a much-needed support system for these high-risk students.
  • Consider waiving in-state tuition for youth identified by their school as homeless who have been accepted to a college or university but are unable to pay tuition.

Policy Recommendation: Eliminate suspension as a disciplinary option for homeless students, except in situations involving a threat to campus, student, or staff safety.

Texas Education Agency

Policy Recommendation: Reassure schools that participation in “point-in-time” counts of homeless students will not violate student privacy laws.

Policy Recommendation: Require school districts receiving Title I funding or McKinney-Vento sub-grants to show that they are collaborating with local service providers as a condition of funding.

Policy Recommendation: Alert school districts that have high rates of exclusionary discipline for homeless students, and provide funding to the Texas Homeless Education Office to provide technical assistance to districts in creating alternatives to traditional disciplinary models.

Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Policy Recommendation: Require STAR providers (program in Texas through which most people get their Medicaid coverage) to show they are working with school districts to provide supports and services to homeless students.

School Districts & Schools

Policy Recommendation: Increase Title I set-asides for services to homeless students based on a needs assessment, done in consultation with the homeless liaisons, and make clear to schools that Title I set-asides are available to meet the needs of homeless students.

  • Districts should devote set aside funds to fund the homeless liaisons’ salary at the equivalent of an FTE if no other sources of funding are available for this salary.
  • Schools should make dropout prevention and tutoring resources available to homeless students, tapping into Title I set-asides where needed; if a student is living in a shelter and unable to stay after school for tutoring, schools should consider having tutors who are able to assist the students at the shelter.

Policy Recommendation: Train teachers and other school staff to identify signs and symptoms of homelessness and connect students with the homeless liaisons.

Policy Recommendation: Participate in “point-in-time” counts of homeless students to better inform policymakers’ understanding of their need for services.

Policy Recommendation: Districts should supplement existing information that Texas requires them to post on their websites about local programs and resources available to homeless students by mapping resources available within the community and district, updating these maps regularly, and making this information easily available to all homeless liaisons to ensure that it is not only publicly available but internally useful.

  • Districts and schools should consider inviting community-based service providers to make resources available while students are on campus, and reach out to and coordinate with the faith-based community for resources and volunteers.
  • Districts and schools should direct school counselors to work with homeless students approaching graduation to identify available funding and resources to support these students’ housing, educational, vocational, and other basic needs.

Policy Recommendation: Districts should implement alternatives to traditional disciplinary models that are trauma-informed and better support students’ behavioral needs.  Some examples are school-wide PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports), Social Emotional Learning, and Restorative Justice.

  • Schools should take into consideration whether a student’s homelessness or history of trauma contributed to a disciplinary infraction and, if that is the case, refer the student to supports or services rather than make a disciplinary referral.

Policy Recommendations: Youth Homelessness & the Juvenile or Criminal Justice Systems

Federal Government

Policy Recommendation: Eliminate the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception to the prohibition on the detention of status offenders, such as runaway youth.

Texas Legislature

Policy Recommendation: Clarify that youth cannot be sent to detention for a VCO where the underlying offense, on which the violation is predicated, is a runaway or other status offense.  [This is an interim step until Congress acts on the a previous policy recommendation related to the VCO exception — see Federal Government.]

Policy Recommendation: Prioritize preventing youth from encountering homelessness, recognizing that investing in prevention will save lives and state resources in the long term.

Policy Recommendation: Change to align with the prevailing understanding of minors, including 17-year-olds, as victims rather than perpetrators and divert them away from the juvenile or criminal justice system entirely.

Policy Recommendation: Continue to invest resources in protecting youth and helping them recover from human trafficking, creating an appropriate, trauma-informed continuum of care outside the juvenile justice system for youth who have been trafficked.

Policy Recommendation: Remove runaway cases from the juvenile system, instead responding through a child welfare lens and emphasizing trauma-informed, community-based family interventions and services; include schools as a partner in finding new solutions and approaches since many homeless students attend school.

Policy Recommendation: Work with service providers to explore the possibility of using Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds to support programs for youth who have been victims of abuse or neglect, or who have been trafficked.

Texas Juvenile Justice Department & Juvenile Probation Departments

Policy Recommendation: Pending a change in law, TJJD should partner with DFPS and other agencies to identify appropriate alternatives to juvenile justice involvement for youth who run away from home and have not committed a more serious offense.

Policy Recommendation: TJJD and local probation departments should begin transition planning  immediately upon a youth’s entry to a secure facility — taking into consideration housing stability, foster care issues that complicate long-term stable housing, and the special needs of pregnant youth and those with children.

Policy Recommendation: Examine and eliminate eligibility barriers that keep homeless youth from accessing benefits through TJJD’s Subsidized Living Support Program.

Policy Recommendation: State and local juvenile justice officials should explore contracting with transitional living programs for youth exiting secure facilities who are not able to return home.

Policy Recommendation: Juvenile probation departments should identify and implement best practices for youth transitioning out of secure facilities who are not able to return home.  For older youth, models similar to transitional living programs (that assist youth in working toward a successful transition to adulthood) should be considered.

Policy Recommendation: TJJD and juvenile probation departments should consider providing services (including crisis intervention) to youth able to return home and their family to ease the transition back into the household and to prevent probation violations (like running away) and future homelessness.  

Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Policy Recommendation: In partnership with other stakeholders, DFPS should conduct a review of STAR services and provider capacity to determine whether there are barriers to effectively utilizing the existing STAR program to address the needs of runaway youth.

  • If capacity is an issue, funding should be provided to ensure adequate resources, recognizing that an appropriate response has the dual purpose of preventing human trafficking and other forms of victimization, as well as other poor outcomes including academic failure and juvenile justice involvement.
  • Texas should work with service providers to explore the possibility of using Victims of Crimes Act (VOCA) funds to support programs for youth — including alternatives to justice system involvement — who have been victims of abuse or neglect, or who have been trafficked.

Policy Recommendation: DFPS should conduct a review of the emergency shelters in Texas that are able to take runaway placements and assess their capacity versus need.

Counties & Municipalities

Policy Recommendation: Review and eliminate ordinances, including juvenile curfew ordinances, that criminalize homeless youth.

Policy Recommendation: Prioritize connecting homeless youth with services and supports that meet their housing and other needs.

Law Enforcement

Policy Recommendation: Educate law enforcement officers in best practices for interacting with youth who are homeless and in services available to youth in their community.

Policy Recommendation: Create specialized units, like those in Houston and Austin, that emphasize diverting youth from the justice system (if they do not pose a threat to public safety) and connecting them with local supports and services.

Continuum of Care (CoC) Boards, Local Juvenile Boards & Local Child Welfare Boards

Policy Recommendation: Examine local responses to runaway youth and work with stakeholders to ensure that these young people are diverted from detention if they are not being held for another offense.  

Policy Recommendation: Include faith-based partners in the process of finding creative solutions to diverting runaway youth from detention (if they do not pose a threat to public safety), particularly in rural counties that may be starved for resources.

Policy Recommendation: Work together (CoCs and local stakeholders) to develop a continuum of community-based services and supports to help homeless youth secure housing and have their basic needs met (including mental health, substance abuse, or other treatment needs) — and develop a plan to address any service gaps.

Policy Recommendations: Youth Homelessness & the Child Welfare System

Texas Legislature

Policy Recommendation: Improve state data keeping so it is possible to determine in “real time” how many young people are in “runaway” status.

Policy Recommendation: Revamp the state’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, with an eye toward individualized services that support a youth’s strengths and needs rather than relying on a static set of classes.

Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission

Policy Recommendation: Provide training to attorneys ad litem (AALs) on how to expunge and/or seal juvenile and criminal justice records.

Policy Recommendation: Reach out to legal aid providers and state university legal clinics in an effort to identify and/or develop resources for foster youth who are about to age out or who have already aged out and who need assistance expunging or sealing a court record.

Texas Department of Family & Protective Services

Policy Recommendation: Periodically review and publish aggregate data and analysis (once state data keeping has improved) to determine whether further improvements should be made or issues addressed based on trends or correlations with other youth characteristics, for example:

  • Trends in youth running from a particular placement;
  • Trends in youth running from particular types of placements;
  • Trends in youth with specific needs running from placements;
  • Trends based on youth demographics like race or ethnicity that may point to a need for cultural competency training for service providers.

Policy Recommendation: Review departmental policies to determine what should be done to provide more support to foster families and youth to ensure stability in placements and prevent foster youth from running from care, including:

  • Ensuring foster care providers receive training to assist them in meaningfully integrating trauma-informed principles into their programs in order to create cultures of care that prevent challenging behaviors and conflict from escalating into crises that can result in a youth running from a placement.
  • Offer counseling, crisis intervention, and/or respite services at the first sign that a foster care placement is in danger of failing, either through STAR or other available providers— and improve foster families’ access to these services.
  • Ensure that providers tap into the full range of in-home behavioral health supports and services available to foster youth through Superior Health.

Policy Recommendation: Provide training to drop-in centers around safe return to care so that center staff can communicate with runaway foster youth about their options if they seek services at a center.

Policy Recommendation: Review foster care placements and history for all youth who run away more than once to ensure that it is not the result of unaddressed needs or hidden abuse or neglect.  This could be done by regularly including these cases in Starfish staffing (an individual staffing for cases involving children with complex needs).

Policy Recommendation: Change rules for the Supervised Independent Living program (SIL) to allow youth to opt into SIL beginning at age 16 — if it is determined that the young person is ready for this step and SIL will result in a more stable placement.

Policy Recommendation: utilizing in-house investigators to assist law enforcement in finding youth to reduce their chances for victimization and trafficking, and should review its policies to ensure they incentivize prompt notification by caregivers when a youth runs from a placement.

Policy Recommendation: Work with law enforcement organizations and regional CPS offices to develop a model protocol or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that local CPS offices and law enforcement could adopt to better ensure a quick response when a child runs from care, and implementation of trauma-informed practices when a child is located.

Policy Recommendation: Develop and encourage joint training for local CPS staff and law enforcement to build relationships and identify ways to collaborate when a child runs from care.

Policy Recommendation: Revamp the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, moving away from a static set of classes, to adopt an individualized, intensive case management approach for youth ages 14 and older that supports a youth’s strengths and needs, with more accountability to ensure that:

  • Youth are connected with at least one supportive adult;
  • Youth, caseworker, and supportive adult(s) begin developing a transition plan with concrete, identified goals that address housing, job, and workforce training or educational needs;
  • The transition plan clearly states who is responsible for assisting the youth in reaching the goals outlined in the plan;
  • Consistent follow-up is maintained between meetings and meaningful progress is made toward transition plan goals; and
  • Youth are connected with service providers who will continue to assist them after they age out.

Policy Recommendation: Schedule regular transition planning meetings or circles of support with youth once they turn 16, with a goal of meeting every three months to check on progress.

Policy Recommendation: Explore building more flexibility into the requirements surrounding completion of Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) classes and the impact of completion on benefits youth are eligible for after turning 18.

Policy Recommendation: Work with stakeholders to evaluate models for transitional living and determine how licensing can help facilitate development and sustainability of transitional living programs.

Policy Recommendation: Because more youth are opting to extend foster care beyond age 18 but are leaving after extending care a year on average and before turning 21, change the process for extending foster care to an “opt out” rather than an “opt in” — thereby improving the likelihood that more foster youth will continue to receive the support and services they need to prepare for adult living.

Policy Recommendation: Raise the reimbursement rates for the Supportive Independent Living (SIL) program so that more providers are able to participate.

Policy Recommendation: Review the application process for the Supportive Independent Living (SIL) program to determine what is preventing more youth from participating and develop a plan for addressing any barriers.

Policy Recommendation: Work with foster care providers to identify alternatives to law enforcement involvement for youth whose behavior does not pose a safety risk — including:

  • Providing training in the poor outcomes associated with juvenile or criminal justice system involvement.
  • Making crisis intervention and respite care available to foster care providers as alternatives to law enforcement involvement for youth whose behavior does not pose a safety threat.
  • When a youth’s behavior poses a safety threat, local stakeholders in CPS and probation should work together to determine whether that behavior is the result of unmet treatment needs that should be prioritized instead of involving the juvenile or criminal justice systems.
  • When involving the justice system cannot be avoided, local stakeholders in CPS and probation should work together to avoid duplicating services and to maximize the resources each can offer to meet the youth’s treatment needs.

County Child Welfare Boards & Continuum of Care (CoC) Boards

Policy Recommendation: Work with stakeholders to examine the impact of foster care on youth homelessness in their jurisdictions, develop local responses that take into account the need for a full continuum of care to prevent youth homelessness, and provide trauma-informed interventions.

Policy Recommendations: Youth Homelessness & Physical/Behavioral Health Systems

Government — Federal, State, & Local

Policy Recommendation: All levels of government, as well as funders of physical and behavioral health systems and services, must affirmatively invest in evidence-based prevention and early intervention programming and services.

Policy Recommendation: Federal and state statutes, policies, rules, and guidance for Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) should clearly provide for unaccompanied minors as a population and ensure that they can apply by removing these and other barriers to enrollment:

  • Requiring proof of parental income; and
  • Requiring a permanent residence or address.

Policy Recommendation: Federal and state government should work together to expand CHIP coverage to age 21 and reduce enrollment fees and co-pays for unaccompanied youth covered under this program.

Policy Recommendation: The State should simplify current consent laws so that youth are able to access and consent to all health care services they require. In particular:

  • Unaccompanied youth, age 14 and older, should be able to consent to physicals and immunizations so that they can fully participate in school activities.
  • At a minimum, health care providers must be held to a good faith standard when providing services to unaccompanied youth consenting to their own care.

Policy Recommendation: The State should enact clear, affirmative laws allowing minors to contract for “necessities,” including in that definition needed medical and behavioral health services.

Health Care Providers

Policy Recommendation: Create youth-centric services and programs that ensure youth seek out and obtain consistent physical and behavioral health services, and consider marketing services as youth-specific.  Such services should:

  • Allow for flexible hours;
  • Not use jargon to explain health conditions and disorders;
  • Utilize technology effectively (e.g., text youth to remind them about appointments or              medications);
  • Ensure on-site, same-day treatments whenever possible;
  • Encourage questions and feedback from youth;
  • Respect and understand that friends often serve as family and may be a young person’s only support system; and
  • Recognize youths’ independence and ability to survive independently.

Policy Recommendation: Set expectations for youth in small steps — work to reduce harm first, then work to change bad habits — thereby improving the chances of their developing a long-term relationship with a health provider who can educate them about their current and future health needs.

Policy Recommendation: Consider providing some mobile health care services — exploring partnerships with a university or corporate sponsor to make mobile services possible or to secure funding to pay the cost of transporting youth who are homeless to health facilities.

Policy Recommendation: Provide all health care staff serving youth experiencing homelessness with training in trauma-informed care and positive youth development.  For example, providers should be trained in strategies to build rapport and trust by working collaboratively with young clients.

Policy Recommendation: Partner with youth-based agencies — including drop-in centers, schools, meal providers, and shelters — to gain access to homeless youth in need of physical and behavioral health services and encourage agencies they already have a relationship with to refer them to health care providers.

Policy Recommendation: Health care clinics and programs connected to youth-focused agencies and organizations can be a bridge to more specialized health care professionals, if necessary.

Policy Recommendations: Services & Supports for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Federal Government

Policy Recommendation: The Federal government should establish one clear definition of homelessness and utilize that definition for all of its youth-focused programs. The State of Texas should honor the federal definition.

Texas Legislature / State Agencies

Policy Recommendation: Establish a statewide task force led by DFPS and TDHCA that is specifically charged with identifying funding strategies and opportunities to support and sustain a full continuum of quality services for young people who are experiencing homelessness and who are at risk.

Policy Recommendation: Create dedicated funding streams and policy changes, within both the state child welfare and housing agencies, to support services for youth and young adults who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. Some of these funding streams could be created by expanding existing programs, including:

  • Increasing funding for the Services to At-Risk Youth (STAR) program in the Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) division at DFPS and better prioritizing prevention of youth homelessness as well as intervention for runaways who are homeless as a STAR service.
  • Increasing funding for the Homeless Housing and Services Program (HHSP) housed at Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) and earmarking the increase to support services designed for youth who are homeless and young adults.
  • Guaranteeing that young people experiencing homelessness, who are often victims of crime, are eligible for Victims of Crime Assistance (VOCA) funds available through the Office of the Governor.
  • Continuing to engage service providers that work with youth experiencing homelessness in developing a continuum of services for victims of domestic sex trafficking — and make funding to assist victims of trafficking available to programs serving homeless youth.

Policy Recommendation: Texas should build on successful and promising programs for young people who age out of foster care by expanding the eligibility criteria to include certain youth and young adults who are homeless and on their own.  For example:

  • Lawmakers should allow young people who are homeless and who have a documented history of abuse or neglect to opt in to an Supervised Independent Living (SIL) program without opting into foster care.
  • The Texas Legislature should appropriate funding to reimburse SIL providers for serving these young people in the same manner that it reimburses providers for serving foster care youth.
  • Texas should consider increasing funding for transition centers, which are “one stop shops” serving youth who age out of foster care, and expanding eligibility criteria for services through those centers to include homelessness.
  • Agencies such as the Texas Workforce Commission that help  support transition centers should make youth who are homeless a priority population, as well as foster youth.

Policy Recommendation: The Texas Legislature should require state agencies to show leadership to address youth homelessness by mandating that DFPS and TDHCA work together to address youth homelessness.  This would be similar to the federal structure, in which ACF and HUD each offer their own programs but work together.

Policy Recommendation: Align Residential Child Care Licensing Standards, state law, and federal requirements and expectations. The Texas Legislature should review residential child care licensing standards and the Texas Family Code in order to determine which policies and laws may prevent barriers for providers in serving youth and young adults who are homeless. The Legislature should also determine which policies and laws are aligned with federal requirements and then call on HHSC to rewrite challenging standards in order to facilitate the best services for young people and align state and federal requirements and expectations.

Policy Recommendation: Identify and build on lessons learned about ending youth homelessness from the research and work that has been done already as well as from the YHDP grant program. State and federal policymakers and other stakeholders should study the research that has been conducted already on best practices for serving young people who are homeless. State and federal policymakers, CoCs, providers, and other stakeholders should also look to the work that is currently being completed under HUD’s YHDP in order to understand how communities can come together to effectively tackle youth homelessness. Additionally, state and federal policymakers should continue to invest in the evaluation of programs that serve youth who are homeless, in order to measure and grow their effectiveness.

Report Team & Contact Information

Texas Appleseed Team:

Deborah Fowler, Executive Director

Gabriella McDonald, Pro Bono & New Projects Director

Ellen Stone, Director of Research

Kelli Johnson, Communications Director

Janis Monger, Communications Consultant

Emily Eby, Intern (Summer 2016)

Hailey Pulman, Intern (Summer 2017)

Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) Team:

Christine Gendron, Executive Director

Lara O’Toole, Director of Training & Program Development

Jack Nowicki, Senior Program Development Specialist

We are extremely grateful to our pro bono partner Vinson & Elkins LLP for the research and interviews they completed for our report, and to Patricia Hart and Lindsay Read for the research support they provided.

Finally, we are incredibly appreciative of the more than 100 youth interviewed for this report.  We cannot emphasize enough how honest, brave, and forthright these young people were in telling their stories.

This report is generously supported by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Meadows Foundation, and The Simmons Foundation.

For more information and for copies of our full report, connect with us through our websites and social media:

www.texasappleseed.org

Follow Texas Appleseed on twitter and facebook.

www.tnoys.org

Follow TNOYS on twitter and facebook.

Dangerous Discipline

Executive Summary

 
 

Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children work to address the policies and practices that push Texas youth out of school, increasing the likelihood of grade retention, dropout, and a number of other negative consequences. These policies, practices, and consequences are part of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a process through which harmful classroom removals, school police, and the justice system are used to address student behavior.

The data collected and presented in this report show that Texas school districts continue to rely on police officers, juvenile probation, and courts to address low-level, school-based behaviors, despite an ever-growing body of research showing the many ways these methods harm youth.  Youth of color and youth with disabilities are over-represented in school-based arrests, court referrals, use of force incidents, and referrals to juvenile probation, further demonstrating the need to address the system of overly-punitive discipline that is pervasive in Texas schools.

In the past five years, a number of new laws have impacted the school-to-prison pipeline.  In 2013, the Texas legislature eliminated two Class C misdemeanor offenses, Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation, for students at school. Further, the legislature prohibited police officers from writing tickets to youth on their home campuses, instead requiring that a more formal complaint process be followed in order to charge students with Class C misdemeanor offenses. In 2015, the legislature eliminated the criminal offense of Failure to Attend School and required that school police officers in districts with more than 30,000 students undergo youth-focused training.

These changes in the law have certainly reduced the number of tickets/complaints that are issued to Texas students and have provided some protections to the many students who attend schools where police officers patrol halls and classrooms. Still, the problems inherent in school policing and court interventions persist, highlighting the need for additional reform. Parents, students, educators, advocates, and lawmakers must continue to be vigilant and pass laws, address policies, and end practices that harm children.

The following report contextualizes the use of police and court interventions in schools within the larger world of criminal justice practices and reforms, highlights the improvements and enduring dangers of an overly-punitive school discipline system, and provides analysis from extensive data collection and research into the arrests, court referrals, use of force incidents, school climate, and juvenile probation referrals directly from schools that impact Texas students.

Major Findings

Research and data collected and analyzed by Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children show:

  • Overall, school-based tickets, complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents dropped dramatically following historic shifts in the state’s treatment of non-violent classroom misbehavior in 2013, but have since largely plateaued.
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets, complaints, and arrests among the school districts in our sample. For consistency, school districts with missing data for one or more academic years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets, complaints, and arrests among the school districts in our sample. For consistency, school districts with missing data for one or more academic years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
  • Statewide, 59,054 non-traffic Class C misdemeanor cases were filed against juveniles in 2015-16.
  • Of the 59,637 arrests and referrals of youth to juvenile probation in calendar year 2015, at least 16,814, or 28%, resulted from behavior that occurred on campus or at a school-related event. That’s 5.3 arrests and referrals per 1,000 youth statewide.

Complaints Continue to be Issued in Schools, Usually for Low-Level Infractions:

  • Between 2011 and 2015, the districts in the data set issued 41,304 tickets and complaints to students in schools.
  • The vast majority of tickets and complaints issued by school police officers were for relatively low-level offenses, but carry high costs for students.
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets and complaints among the districts in our sample. School districts without ticketing and complaint data for one or more years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=41).
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets and complaints among the districts in our sample. School districts without ticketing and complaint data for one or more years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=41).
  • The proportion of citations issued for Disorderly Conduct recently increased from 18% of school-based complaints in 2013-14 to 29% of school-based complaints in 2014-15. If left unchecked, school police could rely on Disorderly Conduct charges to effectively replace Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation—two school-based offenses prohibited by the legislature in 2013.

Most School-based Arrests are for Low-level Infractions:

  • Between 2011 and 2015, students in the districts in the data set were arrested 29,136 times.
  • About half of the arrests made by school police officers were for Class C misdemeanors, which are relatively low-level offenses, but which carry high costs for students.
Note: Since Class C misdemeanor offenses for juveniles are heard in adult courts, there is not usually a place for students who are younger than 17 years old to be arrested and detained. Thus, we expect that any Class C misdemeanor arrests in the data set are for students ages 17 years old and older. School districts without offense type data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=36). 
Note: Since Class C misdemeanor offenses for juveniles are heard in adult courts, there is not usually a place for students who are younger than 17 years old to be arrested and detained. Thus, we expect that any Class C misdemeanor arrests in the data set are for students ages 17 years old and older. School districts without offense type data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=36). 

Top 10 Highest Arrest Averages, All Offense Levels (2011-2015)

Note: Several large districts with high SRO activity are not included on this list due to insufficient reporting. For instance, Houston ISD has not been able to produce even aggregate arrest data since Texas Appleseed first began researching this issue in 2006-07. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).
Note: Several large districts with high SRO activity are not included on this list due to insufficient reporting. For instance, Houston ISD has not been able to produce even aggregate arrest data since Texas Appleseed first began researching this issue in 2006-07. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).

Despite Poor Data Collection, it is Clear that Districts of All Sizes Continue to Use Force Against Students:

  • Use of force data were less available than ticketing, complaint, and arrest data, and record-keeping for this type of incident was inconsistent, even within districts.
  • Based on available data, Ector County ISD, Aransas County ISD, and East Central ISD had the highest rates of use of force over the past four years.

Use of Force Incidents by District (2011-2015)

Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=19).
Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=19).

Schools and School Police are Over-reliant on Juvenile Probation to Address School Behavior:

  • The most common offenses that lead youth to juvenile probation directly from school are misdemeanor drug offenses (e.g., possession of marijuana), misdemeanor assault (e.g., school yard fights), and “other misdemeanors,” which includes offenses like disruptive behavior at school (disrupting lawful assembly at school), harassment, and disorderly conduct with three priors, among others. These three offense categories alone make up more than half of all referrals to juvenile probation from schools.
  • School districts in some counties refer youth to juvenile probation at rates that are much higher than the state average. Youth in three counties—Webb, Lubbock, and Brazos—were referred to juvenile probation for school-based behavior at a rate three times the statewide rate.

Youth of Color are Over-represented in Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, Juvenile Probation Referrals, and Use of Force Incidents:

  • While Black and Latino students are not more likely to misbehave than their White peers, Black youth, and to a lesser degree Latino youth, are much more likely to have their behavior addressed by school police officers than their White peers.
  • Black students received 32% of tickets and complaints, 22% of arrests, and 40% of use of force incidents from 2011-2015, though they comprise only 13% of total student enrollment in Texas.
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=31).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=31).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=16).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=16).
  • In many of the sampled districts with the highest rates of tickets and complaints, Black students received two to four times as many disciplinary actions as their representation in the student body from 2011 to 2015. In Austin ISD, for example, 20% of tickets and complaints went to Black students, who make up just 8% of the district’s students overall. In Dallas ISD 49% of tickets and complaints went to Black students, who make up about 23% of Dallas ISD’s student population.
  • Of all youth who were referred to juvenile probation from schools in 2015, 25% were Black, 53% were Latino, 21% were White and 1% were classified as “Other.” Statewide population data show that, among youth ages 10 to 17, 14% are Black, 46% are Latino, 34% are White, and 6% are classified as “Other.”
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
  • Statewide, Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for school-related offenses at a rate 2.86 times higher than their White peers. Statewide, Latino youth are referred to juvenile probation at a rate 1.87 times higher than their White peers.
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Black youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County and Cameron County are are not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of Black youth in either county in 2015, and no White youth were referred from Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Black youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County and Cameron County are are not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of Black youth in either county in 2015, and no White youth were referred from Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores greater than one indicate more Latino youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County is not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of White youth in Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores greater than one indicate more Latino youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County is not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of White youth in Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]

Students with Disabilities are Over-represented in Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, and Use of Force Incidents in Schools:

  • Only 14 school districts in our sample could provide data disaggregated by special education status, but the data we did receive show that students with disabilities were over-represented in tickets/complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents. Notably, youth with disabilities experienced more than twice as many arrests as their representation in the student body: 24% of arrests versus 9% of student enrollment.
Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).
Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).

Even Very Young Students are Policed and Referred to Courts and Probation:

  • Elementary school students have received an increasing percentage of complaints/tickets, arrests, and use of force incidents over the four years for which data were collected. Middle school students have received as much as 36% of complaints/tickets, 33% of arrests, and 45% of use of force incidents—more than high schoolers in the data set.
  • Since 2012, school districts have charged 10- and 11-year-olds with Class C misdemeanors 30 times, in clear violation of the 2011 law that prohibited these charges for students so young.
  • Dallas ISD reported two use of force incidents by police against six-year-old students.
  • Younger students who are referred to juvenile probation are even more likely to be referred for school-based behavior than older youth. In 2015, at least 46% of referrals to juvenile probation for 10- to 11-year-olds came from schools.
  • While schools referred Latino and White 10-year-olds to probation at roughly the same rate, 11-, 12- and 13-year-old Latino youth were referred to probation at nearly double the rate of White youth.
  • Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for school-based behavior at a rate of 2.5 to 3.5 times the rate of White youth in all age groups. In fact, statewide, 12-year-old Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses at the same rate as 15- and 16-year-old White youth.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Boys are Over-represented in Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, and Use of Force Incidents in Schools:

  • Boys received approximately 74% of disciplinary actions in the data set, though they only represent approximately 51% of total student enrollment.

Students in Juvenile Facilities Report Previous, Negative Interactions with School Police:  

  • Out of 425 currently-incarcerated youth who were surveyed, 64% reported being repeatedly stopped or questioned by school police before entering a Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facility, beginning between ages 12 and 13 on average.
  • 66% of youth surveyed had been ticketed or sent to court by a school police officer or school official at least once before entering a TJJD facility, and 35% of youth surveyed had been arrested by a school police officer before entering a TJJD facility.
  • Most youth in the study reported seeing or interacting with police at school nearly every day (the mean response was 4 out of 5 days per week). However, rather than make students feel safer, survey participants reported overwhelmingly negative interactions with school police officers not just personally but also in their observations of officers’ interactions with their peers.

TJJD Youths’ Recent Firsthand Experiences with School Police Officers (2015)

Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about school police officers.
Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about school police officers.
  • Youth reported rather unwelcoming and unsupportive school climates before entering TJJD facilities. After having mostly negative experiences with school police officers in the past, presently incarcerated youth hold largely negative attitudes toward police officers and are not particularly hopeful that they will make schools safe.

School Police Programs are Costly:

  • Public school districts with internal police departments spend about $75 per student enrolled on school police programs each year, a figure that has been increasing steadily over the past four years despite research showing the harms of current school policing practices and decreasing crime rates statewide.
  • Overall, Texans paid $79 million for school police programs across our relatively small sample of 53 school districts with financial data (out of 1,247 total districts in 2014-15). This means that, on average, each of the 53 school districts from the sample spent over $1.4 million on school police officer programs. This expenditure far exceeds the average amount spent on counselor salaries in each of Texas’ 1,247 school districts: approximately $534,000 per district.

Policy Recommendations

Based on the findings in this report, Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children recommend the following policy changes:

TEXAS LEGISLATURE

1. ELIMINATE THE CRIMINAL COMPONENTS OF CLASS C MISDEMEANORS FOR JUVENILES

The data in this report clearly show that students in Texas schools are still being arrested and sent to court for Class C misdemeanors frequently. In 2015, the Texas legislature decriminalized truancy. Now, truancy is a civil offense, still heard in Justice and Municipal courts, but without the fines and threat of a criminal record that the criminal offense carried. The legislature recognized the harms associated with fining youth and saddling them with criminal records.

The Texas legislature should eliminate fines for juveniles convicted of Class C misdemeanors and require automatic expunction of all records related to charges for Class C offenses. Common Class C offenses include Disorderly Conduct and Curfew Violation. Class C offenses could still be heard in Justice and Municipal courts, but the most harmful consequences of being charged with a criminal offense—fines and lasting criminal records—should be eliminated.

2. EXPAND YOUTH-FOCUSED TRAINING TO POLICE IN ALL TEXAS SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Following the passage of House Bill 2684 in 2015, police officers in all school districts in Texas with more than 30,000 students are required to have at least 16 hours of youth-focused training, including training in child and adolescent psychology, research-based conflict resolution techniques, de-escalation techniques, the mental and behavioral needs of children with disabilities, and mental health crisis intervention. The hours required for this training are part of, not in addition to, the 40 hours of training that any officer in Texas is required to have in order to maintain his or her license. Unfortunately the law does not require training for officers in small- and medium-sized districts.

The Texas legislature should expand the youth-focused training requirements of HB 2684 so that they apply to officers who interact with students in all school districts in Texas.

3. IMPROVE DATA COLLECTION ON POLICE ACTIVITIES IN SCHOOLS

Currently there are no laws in Texas that require the collection and publication of data related to school-based arrests, use of force incidents, and citations/complaints. Students in Texas schools are restrained, come into contact with Tasers and pepper spray, and are sent to court, all without required disclosure to the public. It is impossible to understand the scope of the problem without mandatory, standardized data collection.

The Texas legislature should task the Texas Judicial Council with developing a system of data collection that will require school district police departments, local police departments that assign or send their officers to schools, and courts to collect and report data related to school-based arrests that send youth to both the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system, use of force incidents, and court contact.

4. ELIMINATE THE USE OF TASERS AND PEPPER SPRAY ON STUDENTS

Police officers in Texas schools are authorized to carry Tasers and pepper spray for use against students.  The use of these weapons harms students and can be dangerous and disruptive for bystanders and the general school environment. Juvenile probation departments in Texas have recognized these harms and have prohibited the use Tasers and pepper spray in their facilities.

The Texas legislature should ban the use of Tasers and pepper spray in situations that do not involve a weapon in Texas public schools.

5. ESTABLISH APPROPRIATE COUNSELOR-TO-POLICE RATIOS IN SCHOOLS

Research points to the efficacy of using prevention and intervention measures to encourage positive student behavior and address trauma and student needs.  School counselors and other mental health professionals like social workers and psychologists are great resources for students, and are often able to identify and address underlying causes of student behaviors, without relying on school police or court intervention. The average student-to-counselor ratio in Texas is 470:1. The American Counseling Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1. High schools that maintain one school counselor for every 250 students have shown lower disciplinary incidents, as well as better graduation and school attendance rates.

The Texas legislature should encourage investment in high-quality counselors and other mental health professionals in schools by establishing a minimum 4:1 ratio of school-based counselors and other mental health professionals to school-based law enforcement officers. This ratio would not create additional costs for districts, but would simply allow districts to shift funds so that they are used to address and prevent behavioral problems with meaningful services, rather than simply punish them after they occur.

6. ELIMINATE THE OFFENSE OF DISORDERLY CONDUCT

In 2013, the Texas legislature eliminated the Class C offenses of Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation.  Just by ending ticketing for these two offenses, the issuing of citations decreased by over 50%.  Our data show, however, that the proportion of Disorderly Conduct complaints filed actually increased for some students following the Disruption of Class and Transportation bans, suggesting that Disorderly Conduct has replaced Disruption of Class and Transportation as a general catch-all offense.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a Statement of Interest in Kenny v. Wilson, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. In the suit, the Plaintiffs—a proposed class of students and a youth organization—challenge South Carolina’s “Disturbing Schools” and “Disorderly Conduct” statutes. The Department asserts that the racial disparities in the enforcement of criminal statutes, like Disorderly Conduct, “may indicate that [they are] unconstitutionally vague,” in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process protections.  

The Texas legislature should eliminate the ability of districts to file complaints against students on their home campuses for the offense of Disorderly Conduct.

7.  RAISE THE AGE OF JUVENILE COURT JURISDICTION

Currently, all youth age 17 and older in the state of Texas are considered adults in the eyes of the criminal justice system. With the exception of some youth on juvenile probation, 17-year-old students who are arrested at school are taken to the county jail. Even though these students are juniors and seniors in high school, they do not receive the protections of the juvenile system, their parents do not have to be notified of their arrest, and their record for school misbehavior will follow them throughout their life as a criminal record.  

The Texas legislature should raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 17 year olds are treated the same as other youth.

8. KEEP 10-12 YEAR OLDS OUT OF THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Only 11% of all youth who are referred to juvenile probation are 10-12 years old. However, at least 46% of those 10- to 12-year-olds are referred to probation because of school-related behaviors. Referrals to probation increase the likelihood that youth will be involved in the justice system later in life.  These young kids would be more appropriately served through Community Resource Groups, local Systems of Care, and other services providers. Schools that cannot provide appropriate interventions and behavioral supports to these young students can refer them to the same service providers juvenile probation refers youth to, and can also get youth the supports they need through local Community Resource Groups, a local System of Care, and prevention and early intervention providers.

The Texas legislature should raise the lower age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 10-12 year olds are kept out of the juvenile justice system and instead get intervention and services in more age-appropriate settings.  

9. REQUIRE DISTRICTS TO ADDRESS SCHOOL CLIMATE IN PLANNING EFFORTS

Schools with positive school climates experience fewer disciplinary problems, a greater sense of safety on campus, and improved student performance. Beginning in 2017, the Texas Education Agency will be required to include measures of school quality, climate, and safety in its plans to support Title I schools as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind.

Texas should require districts to include measures of school climate as a performance measure in District Improvement Plans, along with strategies to promote safe and supportive school climates, including trauma-informed practices and positive behavior management strategies.

TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY

1. CONTINUE TO FUND TRAINING FOR RESEARCH-BASED PRACTICES

Research-based practices, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and the Restorative Practices model encourage positive student behavior and reduce the need for classroom exclusions, police contact, and court intervention.

The Texas Education Agency should utilize the expertise within the state’s institutes of higher education and other entities to promote safe and supportive school climates by developing partnerships between these groups and Regional Education Service Centers (ESCs). Through these partnerships, all school districts in Texas can have access to research-based strategies shown to promote school success and reduce reliance on harmful and overly-punitive discipline measures.

Further, the Texas Education Agency should leverage funding made available through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to promote safe and supportive learning environments for all students. School districts can now use professional development (Title II) funds to train school personnel on strategies such as making referrals for students with or at-risk of trauma or mental illness, forming partnerships with community mental health providers, and addressing issues related to school learning conditions. ESSA also establishes a new grant program schools can use to fund efforts like promoting supportive school climates and supportive school discipline, providing school-based mental health services, dropout prevention, bullying prevention, and establishing community partnerships and parent involvement.

2. PROVIDE SCHOOL DISTRICTS WITH GUIDANCE ON IMPLEMENTING EFFECTIVE PRACTICES

Often, educators and administrators ask where they can find resources for their students or how they can access training related to research-based programs to address student behavior.

The Texas Education Agency should should identify and disseminate information on resources districts can use to promote safe and supportive school climates. TEA and the Department of State Health Services are already required to jointly maintain a list of recommended best practice-based programs related to mental health promotion, prevention, and intervention for schools to reference. This list should be expanded to include best practices related to creating positive school climates, including resources that address student needs (such as mental health services and trauma-informed practices) and staff training needs (such as implementing research-based practices shown to reduce classroom removals and school police contact).

TEXAS JUVENILE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

1. IMPROVE DATA COLLECTION & TRACKING FOR REFERRALS OF SCHOOL-BASED OFFENSES

Currently, the data reporting system that juvenile probation departments use to track referrals of youth does not require that information be included in the school-related location data field. As a result, it is likely that a number of probation departments under-report the number of referrals for school-based offenses. The reporting system also has a field that allows probation departments to identify who made a referral, including law enforcement or a school official. However, it is understood that this data is inconsistent as some enter the data based on location while others may use the data field to track whether the youth came in by an arrest from law enforcement or referral from a school official. When school police are tracked as law enforcement, it is unclear whether it was school-based law enforcement or law enforcement outside of school that made the arrest. It is impossible to understand the scope of the problem of school-based juvenile probation arrests and referrals without standardized data collection.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department should standardize data collection and reporting for school-related location and referral sources so that it is clear how many youth are referred to juvenile probation for school-related offenses and whether the referral is from law enforcement or school officials.

SCHOOL DISTRICTS

1. REDUCE STUDENT-POLICE CONTACT BY DECREASING RELIANCE ON SCHOOL POLICE OFFICERS TO ADDRESS MINOR BEHAVIORS

School-based police officers are too involved in addressing student behavior that should be handled by educators, counselors, and school administrators. Officers should not be patrolling hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. Rather, they should be called from their offices when there are incidents that actually impact school safety. If contact between officers and students is reduced in this way, there will be fewer incidents that inappropriately result in arrests, citations, and uses of force against students.

Texas school districts should reduce student-police contact by requiring that officers be stationed in their offices until they are called to address actual threats to school safety.

2. ENCOURAGE SCHOOLS TO ADOPT RESEARCH-BASED ALTERNATIVES

School districts across the country have started to adopt research-based alternatives to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, police, and courts (See Best Practices Section). These methods, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices encourage positive student behavior and safe school climates. Investment in these methods will provide long-term benefits for schools and will reduce reliance on harmful, overly-punitive practices. The Texas Education Agency already provides resources for the implementation of Restorative Practices, PBIS, and Social and Emotional Learning.

Texas school districts should equip educators and administrators with the tools and resources they need to implement research-based methods to address student behavior, improve class management, and create positive school climates. Funds for these tools and resources can be shifted from security budgets and can be obtained through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

3. REVISE MEMORANDA OF UNDERSTANDING AND DISTRICT POLICIES THAT ADDRESS THE DUTIES OF SCHOOL-BASED LAW ENFORCEMENT

Often the expectations and duties of police officers in schools are not clear to administrators, teachers, and even officers themselves.  School-based police officers should only be involved in situations that threaten the safety of students and staff. They should not be called to address minor misbehaviors that would be more appropriately handled by a teacher or administrator in the school setting.

Texas school districts should revise memoranda of understanding that exist between the district and the local law enforcement agency and any other documents that address the duties of police officers within the school district to explicitly limit the involvement of police officers to situations that clearly threaten school safety.

4. CREATE SCHOOL POLICE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEES

Students, parents, and educators have the right to be involved in the hiring and oversight of school police officers.  

Texas school districts should create oversight committees that have the power to review applications for officers who want to work in the school district, conduct officer evaluations, investigate complaints, and review data.  These committees should be comprised of students, parents, educators, and community-based advocates.

5. PROVIDE TRAINING TO EDUCATORS, ADMINISTRATORS, STAFF, AND OFFICERS TO ELIMINATE BIAS

In order to address the biases that may inform their actions, educators, administrators, staff, and school police officers should be trained to recognize biases and should learn skills to limit the impact that those biases have on their interactions with students.

Texas school districts should provide training in de-biasing techniques to everyone in the district who interacts with students.

6. HIRE STAFF THAT IS TRAINED TO PROMOTE A POSITIVE SCHOOL CLIMATE

Counselors and other staff members who are trained in research-based methods to addressing student behavior and promoting positive, safe school climates can be effective in understanding student and family needs and connecting them with services when appropriate.  There are a number of recommended staff positions, including community intervention workers, restorative justice coordinators, and community school resource coordinators that can meet this role.

Texas school districts should hire staff members that promote a positive school climate in order to reduce reliance on law enforcement officers who are not equipped to address student needs.

Introduction

Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children have focused on improving outcomes for Texas youth by working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.  The term “school-to-prison pipeline” describes the policies and practices—the use of suspensions, expulsions, school police, and courts—that push students out of the classroom and increase the likelihood that they will experience academic difficulties, drop out of school, and come into contact with the justice system. Two major components of the pipeline are the unnecessary presence and misuse of police in schools and the use of the court system, including juvenile probation, to address in-school behaviors.

 
 

Using police and courts to respond to minor student behavior is harmful for youth and does not help to foster safe and supportive school climates. Currently, more than 200 school districts in Texas have their own police forces and many more contract with local law enforcement agencies to place officers in schools. Often educators rely on officers to address minor, non-violent situations that would be handled more effectively by a teacher or by a school administrator. Many of the officers in schools are not trained to interact with children and, therefore, respond inappropriately to their unique emotional, psychological, and physical needs and limits. As a result, citations, arrests, and use of force incidents occur with alarming frequency.  Youth of color and youth with disabilities experience this harmful system of punishment at disproportionately high rates.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem.  In 2010, Texas Appleseed published the report Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline: Ticketing, Arrest & Use of Force in Schools, which highlighted the history and growth of school policing and the increasing use of the criminal justice system to address school-based behavior. Class C ticketing and arrest data were collected from Texas school districts, municipal courts, and justice courts. At that time, only 26 school districts and eight municipal courts were able to provide any part of the requested information. Still, a picture of the widespread and inappropriate use of law enforcement and courts in Texas’ public schools became clear.

Some of the major findings from Texas Appleseed’s 2010 report were:

  • Ticketing of students in Texas public schools increased substantially over a two- to five-year period—consistent with a growing law enforcement presence in schools, but in sharp contrast to a reported overall drop in juvenile crime. 
  • Most Class C misdemeanor tickets written by school police officers were for low-level, non-violent misbehavior—but ticketing of students could have far-reaching financial and legal impacts.    
  • African American and Latino students were disproportionately represented in Class C misdemeanor ticketing on Texas public school campuses.                  
  • Special education students were over-represented in Class C ticketing on school campuses.                       
  • The majority of arrests were for non-violent offenses that did not involve the use of weapons—Disorderly Conduct was one of the offenses that most often resulted in arrests and Class C ticketing.                                         
  • African American students were disproportionately represented in school-based arrests.                        
  • School district police departments armed officers with weapons, including pepper spray, Tasers, guns, and canines, which were used on students despite the risks they pose.
  • There was a lack of transparency around school use of force practices.

In 2013, Texas Appleseed published a ticketing and arrest data update, analyzing information collected from more than 40 school districts.  Many of the findings from the 2013 data update were similar to the 2010 report findings, namely that students were still being ticketed for low-level offenses and Black students were over-represented in ticketing and arrests.

What follows is an update of the 2010 report and 2013 data update, with new analyses based on data that Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children have collected from 72 school districts, seven municipal police departments, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, the Office of Court Administration, and 425 surveys administered to youth in secure juvenile facilities. Student enrollment for the 72 sampled school districts in 2014-15 was 1,652,970, accounting for 32% of the statewide student population.  

The data show that while there have been some improvements in the ways that districts address student behavior, there are still policies, practices, and alarming disparities that demonstrate the need for further change at the local and state levels.

The Problem with Criminalizing Students

High-profile shootings in schools around the country and an inflated fear of juvenile offenders contributed to a rise in the presence and use of school police officers and courts to address student behavior. However, extremely dangerous incidents in schools are rare, so the police officers who patrol campuses often handle relatively minor infractions that could be addressed by a teacher or by a school administrator. The result is unnecessary contact between students and police.  

Types of School-based Police Officers

Texas law defines two types of licensed law enforcement that may be placed in schools: 

(a) A school district peace officer commissioned under Section 37.081 of the Texas Education Code and

(b) A School Resource Officer (SRO), defined by Section 1701.601 of the Texas Occupations Code

For this report, we use the terms that describe licensed, school-based law enforcement interchangeably. 

Additionally, school districts may hire security personnel to patrol campuses and school events.

While approximately 200 school districts in Texas have their own police forces, many others contract with local police departments, which station officers on campuses. The contracts between 1) school districts and local police departments and 2) school district police departments and the local police departments with overlapping jurisdiction are called Memoranda of Understanding, or MOUs.  These MOUs often do not describe the expectations or limits of officers who interact with schoolchildren, leaving the role of these officers unclear for both schools and law enforcement agencies.

In 2010, Texas Appleseed found a correlation between the presence of an officer in a school and the number of arrests in that school. Similarly, a recent study found that the regular presence of an officer at a school campus increases the likelihood that children will be referred to law enforcement, including for low-level offenses that should be handled by school officials.  This finding held true even when controlling for demographic factors, neighborhood crime, and levels of crime and disorder at a school.   

The Youth Brain: 

Scientific research has confirmed what many have easily observed: the brains of children are different than those of adults and can impact the ability of youth to make decisions and appreciate the consequences of actions. We now know that the human brain does not actually reach the point of full maturation until we are in our 20s.

The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the importance of treating juveniles differently than we treat adults in the criminal justice context.  Since 2005, the Court has eliminated the death penalty for youth, determined that a sentence of Life Without Parole is unconstitutional for youth convicted of non-homicide crimes, found that Miranda custody analyses must take into account a child’s age and perceptions, and prohibited the use of mandatory Life Without Parole sentences for children convicted of homicide.

Given our scientific and legal understanding of the development of the brain, it is important to ensure that educators, officers, lawyers, and court staff who interact with children have access to appropriate resources.

Strategies for Youth (SFY) is an organization that researches and trains police officers who interact with youth. SFY focuses on creating “developmentally competent” adults in order to foster positive relationships with children. With its “Policing the Teen Brain” training, SFY utilizes the lessons learned from neurological science to teach officers about appropriate interactions with students.

The officers that are called to handle low-level offenses in schools are allowed to carry weapons like Tasers and pepper spray and use various methods of force against students.  And, until 2015, there was no state-mandated requirement for officers working in Texas’ schools to receive youth-focused training.  Now, only officers in school districts with more than 30,000 students are required to receive training. The availability of weapons, lack of appropriate training, and frequent contact between officers and students can lead to situations that are dangerous for youth and harmful to school climate and safety.

In addition to encountering police officers in their classrooms and hallways, students can be charged with crimes in school, often for Class C misdemeanors like Disorderly Conduct.  When charged with Class C misdemeanors, Texas students can be sent to Justice or Municipal Courts, which are adult criminal courts, not juvenile courts.

In these adult courts, students are not guaranteed an attorney, yet they face the possibility of court costs, fines, and a criminal record. Seventeen-year-old students also face the possibility of being jailed if they are unable to comply with court orders. Youth charged with Class C misdemeanors are sometimes instructed to understand legal instructions and defend themselves without any assistance, which is difficult for adults, let alone children, and can be a particularly impossible task for students with disabilities and English-language learners.  

The video below details the rise of the overly-punitive school discipline system in the U.S.:

“Unraveling Zero Tolerance” by Retro Report (NY Times).

Texas Appleseed’s and Texans Care for Children’s data collection and research, analyzed in detail in the data sections below, show that arrests and Class C misdemeanor complaints are made with frequency in Texas schools, and a stunning percentage of arrests and referrals to juvenile probation departments are made from schools.  

This report from the Advancement Project, the Equality Federation Institute, and the Gay-Straight Alliance describes how to build connections across identities to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
This report from the Advancement Project, the Equality Federation Institute, and the Gay-Straight Alliance describes how to build connections across identities to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Any student who experiences contact with police or courts is susceptible to a number of negative consequences. But, youth with disabilities and youth of color are arrested, accused of crimes, sent to court, and placed in juvenile probation at disproportionately high rates, increasing their exposure and vulnerability to many well-documented harms. The intersections of these identities can further increase the likelihood of harm for youth.

The Over-representation of Students with Disabilities

Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).
Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).

Texas students with disabilities are over-represented in arrests and court involvement. Behaviors caused by some disabilities can be seen by educators and police as willful student misbehavior, instead of the symptoms of a disability. Traditional discipline strategies may not be effective; in fact, these strategies are not recommended for students with disabilities. When police officers are untrained in how to effectively respond to students with special needs, they risk escalating situations that could be avoided if more appropriate interventions were used. In Texas, nearly half of students classified as having an “Emotional Disturbance” are removed from their classrooms for discretionary reasons, not for offenses that require removal by law. Even with training, officers may be unaware of which students have disabilities and, therefore, may respond to them inappropriately.

Because of Texas’ under-identification and under-reporting of children who have special education needs, the number of these youth who are arrested and charged with crimes in their schools may be significantly higher than data currently show. Exclusion from class because of an arrest or in order to comply with court requirements can cause children who may already be struggling to keep up with their classmates to fall even further behind.

One Student’s Story:

“A student with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities had a meltdown in class. The school called campus and city police, who did not know anything about the student or his disability. Rather than try to deescalate the situation, the police restrained the student and handcuffed him. The student was terrified and did not understand the police officers’ commands. As a result, the student became anxious about returning to school and his classroom and became distrustful of police officers.”

-Information from an attorney who represents students with disabilities

Racial Disparities

“The concentration of students of color [i]s a predictor of whether or not schools decide to rely on more intense [security] measures.”

– Dr. Jason P. Nance                                                

In every major component of the school-to-prison pipeline—classroom exclusions, police contact, probation referrals, and court contact—Black and, in many districts, Latino youth are over-represented.

Note: School-based referrals to juvenile probation are examined in more detail in the data sections below. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: School-based referrals to juvenile probation are examined in more detail in the data sections below. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

The disproportionate removal of these students from their classrooms (thereby increasing the likelihood of school failure and justice system contact) is well-documented and confirmed by the data presented in this report. Research in other states shows that police officers are more likely to be stationed at schools with higher Black and Latino populations, even controlling for neighborhood crime and school-based misbehavior.  This increased presence means a greater likelihood of law enforcement referral.

The Over-representation of LGBTQ and GNC Students

[N]on-heterosexual adolescents suffer disproportionate punishments by schools and the criminal-justice system, which implicates not only schools, police, and courts but also other youth-serving health and welfare systems that often fail to meet the needs of non-heterosexual adolescents. 

The extent to which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) and gender non-conforming (GNC) youth are over-represented in the school discipline system is becoming increasingly clear.  A national study found that non-heterosexual youth are up to three times more likely to experience school sanctions and criminalization than their heterosexual peers.

While more data about these students must be collected in Texas, research so far has confirmed that LGBTQ and GNC youth face hostile school environments.  One survey of Texas LGBTQ youth found that 23% of LGBTQ students regularly heard school staff make homophobic remarks. A number of Texas advocates have reported that LGBTQ youth have been sent to court for school-based behavior that was simply a response to bullying they had endured.

Graphic from the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
Graphic from the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
5 Ways to Make School Safer for LGBTQ Students Infographic from Trans Student Educational Resources
5 Ways to Make School Safer for LGBTQ Students Infographic from Trans Student Educational Resources

Protecting these youth and their right to feel safe in school without fear of harassment or legal consequences is of paramount importance, especially considering the increased social harassment, isolation, and family instability that LGBTQ and GNC youth may experience.

The Consequences

The harmful effects of arrest and court involvement are not limited to the moment they occur or even immediately after. There are a number of medium- and long-term costs that districts incur and consequences that youth face when they interact with police in their classrooms and hallways and when their schools use courts to punish behavior.  Further, the impact of an overly-punitive discipline system on the general school climate and can be long-lasting and harmful.

High Costs

Operating courts and juvenile probation departments is costly for taxpayers.  Additionally, there are costs associated with the limited earning potential of children who drop out of school and who have criminal records. In some Texas school districts, the cost of security and monitoring, including paying for school police officers, can be significant. The school districts below have chosen to form (and pay for) their own police departments:

The chart below was created using budget data for school districts that is publicly available through the Texas Education Agency.  The chart compares the amount that some Texas school districts budgeted for social work services for students to the amount budgeted for security and monitoring of students in the 2015-16 school year. No school district below invested more in serving youth through social work services than it budgeted for monitoring students.

Data collected from the Texas Education Agency.
Data collected from the Texas Education Agency.

Data collected for this report show that policing costs per student are rising in Texas, for both large and small districts (see the data section for an in-depth analysis of school police program costs).

Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).

Impact on Student Interactions and School Climates

1.6 million children in the U.S. attend schools where there are sworn law enforcement officers, but no counselors.

Among the most important functions of schools is to provide an example of appropriate social interactions and conflict resolution.  In the schools that utilize classroom removals, police, and courts to address student behavior, students may begin to believe that exclusion and punishment are the best ways to solve conflict or deal with people and situations that are less than ideal.  This is particularly problematic when students of color, LGBTQ and GNC youth, and students with disabilities are over-represented in punishments—it is important to consider what lesson this may be teaching students, even unintentionally.

Tasers and Pepper Spray in Texas Schools: 

Police officers in Texas schools are authorized to use Tasers and pepper spray against students. In addition to the negative impacts on school climate, there are serious physical harms that can result from the use of Tasers and pepper spray on children.

In 2013, Noe Niño de Rivera was tased by a school resource officer in Cedar Creek High School in Bastrop ISD.  Noe, who was 17 years old, was trying to break up a fight between two other students at his school—witnesses and video show that he was not participating in the fight or breaking the law in any way.  After he was tased, Noe fell and hit his head, resulting in a coma that lasted more than 50 days.  He now has permanent brain damage. 

Because of the physical dangers Tasers pose to children, they are prohibited in all juvenile secure facilities in the state. And, while pepper spray is technically allowed in very limited circumstances in probation department facilities if a local policy is in place, there are no probation departments in Texas that have enacted such policies to use pepper spray. 

Research shows that one key to creating positive, safe, and supportive school climates is to treat youth fairly and create discipline systems that support students by addressing underlying issues, rather than using overly-punitive measures like classroom removals, police, and courts.  The American Psychological Association has noted, in the context of exclusionary discipline, that schools that utilize these punitive measures frequently also report “less satisfactory ratings of school climate, less satisfactory school governance structures, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on disciplinary matters.” When disciplinary practices create poor school climates, all students are negatively impacted, not just those of the students who are being disciplined.

Impact on Student Achievement & Life Outcomes

When students are removed from their classrooms, they miss important instruction and socialization time.  They can quickly fall behind their peers academically and experience frustration when they attempt to catch up.

When children are excluded from school they may experience the negative outcomes associated with a “weaken[ed] . . . school bond.”  This weakening may be exacerbated by any number of underlying problems that may be causing misbehavior.  Further, students who are excluded from class as a result of contact with school police and court involvement may feel embarrassed and stigmatized.  All of these factors contribute to an increased likelihood of dropping out, additional court involvement, and limited future prospects.

.  This is particularly true for students who have had no prior justice system involvement. Police interventions, like arrests and other forms of contact, decrease the likelihood that a student will graduate by over 70%. The very first arrest of a student in high school almost doubles the likelihood of drop out. Further, a criminal record can have serious impacts on a student’s ability to contribute to society,obtain housing, make career choices, be mentally healthy, and join the armed services.

 
 

In short, police contact, probation referrals, and court involvement are overly-punitive practices that can result in discriminatory outcomes and harm to students in the short- and long-term, do little to address potentially serious underlying issues, and are costly for districts and the state of Texas.

School Police and Courts in Context

Increasingly, attention has been paid to the ways that communities interact with law enforcement and how courts are overused and misused.  The images of extreme use of force incidents by police officers against individuals have led to national attention and a call for conversations about race, improved community-officer relations, and police oversight and accountability.  Federal investigations and reports have revealed the discriminatory and widespread use of arrests, tickets, courts, and compounding fees and fines to target people and keep them in a cycle of poverty and criminal justice system involvement.

What does “Use of Force” mean?

The National Institute of Justice notes that while there is no universally accepted definition for “use of force,” the International Association of Chiefs of Police defines the term as the “amount of effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.”

That effort is sometimes mapped out on a continuum, ranging from verbal commands to lethal force.  Many school districts in Texas did not provide use of force policies when requested by Texas Appleseed and these policies are often not publicly available. 

Austin ISD is one district that does make its Use of Force Policy available.  The following is the range of options available to the Austin ISD Police Department:

1. Presence 2. Verbal Direction 3. Soft Empty Hand Control Techniques    a. Wrist Locks    b. Joint Locks    c. Pressure Points    d. Restraining Devices 4. Chemical Weapons 5. Taser X26 Electronic Control Device 6. Intermediate Control Techniques    a. Hard Empty Hand Control    b. Impact Weapons    c. Stun Bag Shotgun    d. Canine Application 7. Deadly Force 

Often missing from these important conversations is the connection between larger policing and court issues and the challenges and dangers inherent in the system of school-based law enforcement. For many children, antagonistic relationships with police officers and courts begin on the school campus. Negative impressions about law enforcement and the justice system can be shaped early and reinforced when officers are called to address relatively minor school-based behaviors, particularly when those calls are disproportionately made in response to the behavior of Black and Latino children, LGBTQ youth, and students with disabilities.

What is particularly concerning is that many of the high-profile incidents that have received so much attention lately seem to occur as a result of minor infractions that escalated unnecessarily. The ticketing and policing of minor offenses has proven problematic generally, and is especially disturbing in schools, where non-violent offenses like “disorderly conduct” are often addressed with handcuffs and court interactions, rather than with research-based measures that promote a positive and safe school climate.

The slideshow below shows a sampling of the alarming student-police interactions witnessed in schools in Texas and across the country:

National Reform Efforts

Nationally, there have been increased efforts to address school policing and the use of courts to punish school-based behaviors.

Congressional Hearing on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

In 2012 the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.  It was the first time that a congressional committee addressed this issue head-on.  In his opening statement, Senator Richard Durbin noted that:

“This school-to-prison pipeline has moved scores of young people from classrooms to courtrooms. A schoolyard fight that used to warrant a visit to the principal’s office can now lead to a trip to the booking station and a judge. Sadly, there are schools that look more like prisons than places for children to learn and grow. Students pass through metal detectors and police roam the halls.”

Federal Discipline Guidance

The Departments of Justice and Education have provided guidance, so that school districts are aware of the recommended steps to avoid the discriminatory application of school discipline.  While the guidance focuses on exclusionary discipline, it also includes the following language related to police in schools:

Titles IV [of the Higher Education Act of 1965] and VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] protect students from discrimination based on race in connection with all academic, educational, extracurricular, athletic, and other programs and activities of a school, including programs and activities a school administers to ensure and maintain school safety and student discipline. When schools respond to student misconduct, Titles IV and VI require that the school’s response be undertaken in a racially nondiscriminatory manner.

These statutes cover school officials and everyone school officials exercise some control over, whether through contract or other arrangement, including school resource officers. Schools cannot divest themselves of responsibility for the nondiscriminatory administration of school safety measures and student discipline by relying on school resource officers, school district police officers, contract or private security companies, security guards or other contractors, or law enforcement personnel. To the contrary, the Departments may hold schools accountable for discriminatory actions taken by such parties.

21st Century Task Force on Policing

President Barack Obama created the 21st Century Task Force on Policing, which released a report with recommendations on how to improve community and law enforcement relationships. Among those recommendations was:

Law enforcement agencies should avoid using law enforcement tactics that unnecessarily stigmatize youth and marginalize their participation in schools (where law enforcement officers should have limited involvement in discipline) and communities.

1033 Program

Important steps were taken to address the militarization of police departments, which was made possible through the 1033 Program.  That program allows the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to transfer surplus military-grade weapons to local police departments, including those in K-12 public school districts.  

Texas School Districts that Received Weapons Through the 1033 Program

  • Frenship ISD 
  • Texarkana ISD 
  • LaJoya ISD
  • Linden-Kildare CISD
  • Aledo ISD
  • Beaumont ISD
  • Ector County ISD
  • San Antonio ISD
  • Edinburg CISD
  • Spring Branch ISD

In Texas, at least 10 school districts received weapons through this program, including 64 M-16 rifles, 18 M-14 rifles, 25 automatic pistols, extended magazines, and 4,500 rounds of ammunition.  School districts in other states also received grenade launchers and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. In a letter to the DOD, Texas Appleseed and other advocacy organizations described the potential harms to children that could result from weapons being distributed to school district police departments through the 1033 Program, including a negative school climate and poor educational outcomes.

This Newsweek story has more information on the rise of the 1033 Program: How America's Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program.
This Newsweek story has more information on the rise of the 1033 Program: How America’s Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program.

In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order limiting the disbursement of weapons through the 1033 Program.  Certain weapons can no longer be given to local law enforcement agencies, including those “solely serving” K-12 schools. It should be noted that while this is an important change, it is not clear that it applies to school districts that contract with local police departments since those departments do not “solely serve” the school district. Further, the process of actually returning unwanted weapons to the DOD has proven difficult for some law enforcement agencies.

The Every Student Succeeds Act

In December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law, repealing and replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. The ESSA allows states to create their own Accountability Plans, which they must submit to the Department of Education for approval. The Plans must include certain goals, including proficiency in reading and math, graduation rates, English language proficiency, and a measure of student growth in elementary and middle schools.

The Plans must also include a goal related to school quality and student success. Plans must specify how the state educational agency will support local education agencies to improve school conditions for student learning, including through reducing incidences of bullying and harassment, and the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom.

Federal School Police Guidance

In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Department of Education issued guidance to public school districts regarding the use of police officers in schools.  This guidance came in the form of several letters to educators and the “Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding and Respect (SECURe) Rubrics.”  

A nationwide coalition of education advocacy groups and individuals, including Texas Appleseed, responded to the letters and rubrics, pointing to a lack of legal guidance around the use of police in schools and calling for limits on the use of school police, increased training, the use of research-based measures before police intervention, data collection, and annual evaluations to determine if school police serve a legitimate educational goal that cannot be met through other means.

The Dignity in Schools Campaign’s School Police Platform

In September 2016, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of organizations committed to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, released its policy platform Counselors, Not Cops, which called for the removal of regularly-stationed police officers from school campuses, the use of positive safety and discipline measures, and the restriction of the use of police to only handle incidents that pose a threat to school safety.  The Campaign also held two congressional briefings to discuss the role of police in schools.

The Department of Justice’s Statement of Interest in Disorderly Conduct Lawsuit

In November 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice  filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) in Kenny v. Wilson, a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a proposed class of students and a youth organization, challenging South Carolina’s “Disturbing Schools” and “Disorderly Conduct” statutes. The Department of Justice filed its SOI in order to address the allegations of “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” of the statutes in question, and specifically noted the harmful consequences that such statutes have on youth who are arrested and charged in their schools.  

The Department asserts that racial disparities in the enforcement of criminal statutes, like Disorderly Conduct, “may indicate that [they are] unconstitutionally vague,” in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process protections.  

Texas Reforms

There have been a number of statewide reforms that impact ticketing and the use of police in Texas’ school districts.

Class C Ticketing Reform

Complaint Filed Against Bryan ISD

In 2013, Texas Appleseed, the Brazos County NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Center for Youth Law filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), on behalf of Black students in Bryan ISD.  The complaint asked OCR to find that “Bryan ISD’s ticketing practices violate[d] Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provides that recipients of federal funds may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

Data collected from Bryan ISD revealed that although Black students comprised less than 25% of students in the district, they accounted for more than 50% of Class C misdemeanor tickets issued from schools in the district. Black students were four times more likely than their peers to receive tickets for Disorderly Conduct and Disruption of Class, two extremely vague and subjective offenses that were used to punish low-level behaviors like “talking too much or making a noise in class.”

The complaint highlighted the harmful and inappropriate disciplinary role that police officers in Bryan schools had taken on as a result of the contract between the ISD and the local police department—a partnership that costed taxpayers more than $750,000 per year.

In 2013, Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children worked with the Texas legislature to ensure the passage of two important reforms: Senate Bill 393 and Senate Bill 1114. These laws:

  • prohibited the ticketing of children in school. Instead, schools must file a formal complaint in order to charge a student with a Class C misdemeanor. This process was designed to address the ease with which tickets were routinely given to students.  Before this change, officers could simply and quickly give students tickets in their halls or classrooms, without much formal process. Now, complaints must be accompanied by witness statements, offense reports, and statements regarding a student’s special education status and the use of graduated sanctions, if applicable.
  • eliminated the offenses of Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation on a student’s own school campus. Before 2013, these offenses were ticketed at alarming rates. Texas Appleseed found that, along with Disorderly Conduct and curfew violations, Disruption of Transportation and Disruption of Class were the most common offenses for which students in Texas were ticketed.

When You Were a Kid . . .

One problem with offenses like Disruption of Class, Disruption of Transportation, and Disorderly Conduct is that they are overly broad offenses that are open to the interpretation of educators and officers.  When there is discretion in punishment, there can be room for bias to creep in and students suffer.

When Disruption of Class was an offense in the Texas Education Code, it was defined as “intentionally disrupt[ing] the conduct of class or other school activities” including by “emitting noise of an intensity that prevents or hinders classroom instruction.”

Similarly, Disorderly Conduct, an offense for which students can still be charged in school, includes making “unreasonable noise[s],” using “vulgar language,” or “mak[ing] an offensive gesture.”

When you were a kid, did you think certain noises were funny?  Did you ever think you could be sent to court for making them in class?

Since the passage of these laws, Class C misdemeanor ticketing of youth has decreased by more than 50% statewide. While this reduction is certainly an improvement, many Texas children are still being charged with Class C misdemeanors, based on in-school conduct. When charged, these students are sent to adult criminal court, without being provided an attorney. They can be fined up to $500 plus court costs, and could have a criminal conviction on their record, impacting future school, job, and military opportunities.

Truancy Reform

In 2014, Texas Appleseed released the report Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy. At that time, children in Texas could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor for having too many unexcused absences from school. Often, those absences were due to family-, personal-, or school-related problems, and were not simply cases of students skipping school. Still, students were sent to adult criminal court where, without court-appointed representation, they faced fines of up to $500, court fees and costs, and the possibility of a criminal record. Some students who were unable to comply with a judge’s orders also faced the possibility of jail time. Only one other state, Wyoming, treated children who missed school like criminals. In one year, Texas schools filed more than 115,000 truancy cases against children, with a disproportionately high number filed against Black and Latino students, children with special education needs, and economically disadvantaged students.

Fortunately, the Texas Legislature responded with House Bill 2398, which decriminalized truancy. Under the new law, schools must help students who chronically miss school with effective interventions. Students may still be referred to court, but now face a civil process rather than a criminal one—they can no longer be fined for missing school and will not have a criminal record. Further, the new law requires that courts destroy the criminal records of Texans previously charged with truancy.

This change in law not only reduces the contact that youth in Texas schools have with the court system, but it envisions the use of prevention and intervention methods to address the root causes of truancy. According to data obtained from the Office of Court Administration (OCA), in the year following the passage of HB 2398, the number of truancy cases filed in Justice and Municipal courts dropped by 90%.

Following the implementation of Texas' truancy reform law (HB 2398) in September 2015, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of truancy cases filed in Justice and Municipal Courts.
Following the implementation of Texas’ truancy reform law (HB 2398) in September 2015, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of truancy cases filed in Justice and Municipal Courts.

Training for School Police in Select Districts

Before 2015, there was no requirement that police officers in Texas schools receive youth-focused training. As a result, officers who were trained to police adults on the street were being stationed in public schools. The dangers that can result from a general lack of training are particularly pronounced in the school setting where children are mentally and emotionally less mature, physically smaller than adults, and may be suffering from unique personal-, familial-, or school-based challenges.

In 2015, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 2684, which required youth-focused training for law enforcement officers in Texas school districts with more than 30,000 students. The bill requires at least 16 hours of training, which counts as a part of the 40 hours that all law enforcement officers in the state must receive to keep their licenses. The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) was tasked with creating the curriculum and was directed to include training in de-escalation techniques, mental health crisis intervention, research-based conflict resolution techniques, the mental and behavioral needs of children with disabilities, and child and adolescent development and psychology.

Texas Appleseed, Texans Care for Children, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, and other advocacy organizations reviewed TCOLE’s curriculum and found that it failed to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of school-based law enforcement officers, contained a number of substantive omissions, failed to provide practical policing tips for use in schools, and was not explicit in much of its guidance.

In early 2016, TCOLE began teaching the curriculum in regions across Texas, with the expectation that officers who attended would then be able to train other officers in their school districts.

Police Body Cameras in Schools

A number of Texas law enforcement agencies that employ police officers in schools have begun equipping their officers with body cameras. School districts that have officers with body cameras include Ft. Bend, Houston, Klein, El Paso, and Irving ISDs.

While some see the benefit in being able to capture interactions between police officers and students, others have raised concerns about the lack of a uniform policy regulating the use of the cameras and about the likelihood that other students who are not involved in an incident could be captured on camera.

Further, there are concerns about the costs of body camera programs: one ISD police chief reported to The Houston Chronicle that the cameras and accompanying equipment would cost between $1,200 and $1,500 per officer. Funds spent on body cameras are not spent on school counselors, resources and training for positive behavior models, and other research-based strategies for creating positive school climates.

Youth-focused training is certainly an important step in addressing the harms that can occur as a result of the presence of police in schools. However, it is not the only step that must be taken: in Bexar County, school police officers received crisis intervention training after Bexar County Juvenile Probation discovered that more than half of the youth referred to the juvenile system were referred by school police. This 40-hour training is considered a “best practice” in Texas, and yet there are still incidents of inappropriate uses of force by school police officers, and high numbers of arrests in some of the county’s school districts. In San Antonio ISD, for example, a 12-year-old girl was body-slammed, face-first into the ground, by a school police officer and there were 550 arrests made by school-based law enforcement in 2014-15. In Bexar County in 2015, at least 1,709 referrals to juvenile probation were for school-based offenses.

A San Antonio ISD police officer body-slams a 12-year-old girl.
A San Antonio ISD police officer body-slams a 12-year-old girl.

While the conversation around school policing and court use has gained much-needed attention in the last few years, there is still room for reform. As is discussed in the following sections, the data that are available reveal the widespread and disturbing use of police and courts to address student behavior.

Data: School-based Complaints, Arrests, & Use of Force

For this report, Texas Appleseed obtained detailed data on disciplinary actions by School Resource Officers (SROs) from 2011 to 2015, including Class C misdemeanor tickets, Class C misdemeanor complaints, arrests, and use of force. The following analyses reflect SRO activity across 72 school districts and seven municipal police departments, together accounting for more than 72,000 disciplinary actions by SROs over the past four school years. Student enrollment for the same 72 districts was 1,652,970 in 2014-15, or about 32% of the student population statewide.

Texas Appleseed’s new data set builds substantially on the analyses presented in our last report on this topic in 2013. Besides almost doubling the number of school districts presented, the new data offer a more representative snapshot of rates and patterns of disciplinary actions by SROs statewide, sampling from regions urban and rural, large and small, and socio-culturally diverse. (See Appendix A for a full inventory of the agencies and data discussed throughout this chapter.)

Our 2011-2015 data overwhelmingly show that Texas school districts continue to lean heavily on law enforcement officials for daily classroom management, exposing children as young as 6 years old to aggressive, age-inappropriate discipline practices previously reserved for extremely dangerous behavior. Despite mounting evidence that law enforcement officials are ill-equipped to address routine school behavior problems, statewide figures showing steadily decreasing juvenile crime rates over the past decade, and persistent inequity in students’ discipline outcomes, Texas school districts continue to fund and grow their SRO programs.

Overall Trends

One of the most striking trends we observed in the new data was the abrupt reduction in disciplinary actions by SROs between academic years 2012-13 and 2013-14. Overall, tickets, complaints, arrests, and use of force dropped dramatically following historic shifts in the state’s treatment of low-level classroom misbehavior.

As discussed earlier in this report, in 2013, the Texas legislature eliminated Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation offenses for students on their home campuses, which had topped lists of school-based offenses for years, effectively removing 12% of SRO actions over a summer. Further, the legislature eliminated ticketing of students on their home campuses, resulting in a more than 50% decrease in ticketing statewide, and a 77% decrease for the districts sampled for this report. The law changes were also associated with fewer arrests for similarly non-violent offenses like Disorderly Conduct and even reduced use of force (although, as we discuss later in this chapter, use of force incidents are not tracked systematically).

However, such dramatic reductions in SRO activity between 2012-13 and 2013-14 have since plateaued. The following figure shows the overall pattern in tickets, complaints, and arrests across the 53 school districts in our sample with complete data over the past four years. (Class C misdemeanor “tickets” and “complaints” are combined throughout our analyses since they result in the same types of charges, though they are distinguished by a change in terminology and filing process between 2012-13 and 2013-14.) Not excluding districts with missing data for one or more years, these totals are even higher, reaching 41,304 tickets and 29,136 arrests by SROs over the past four years.

Note: For consistency, school districts without citation or arrest data for one or more academic years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
Note: For consistency, school districts without citation or arrest data for one or more academic years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).

Unfortunately, the new normal, in which fewer SRO actions occur, but a majority of the remaining SRO actions are for behaviors like ‘disorderly conduct’ or ‘code of conduct violations,’ is almost as worrisome. Based on the tens of thousands of citations, arrests, and use of force incidents we observed across our relatively small sample of 79 agencies, we estimate that hundreds of thousands of these actions occur yearly across the more than 1,200 school districts and countless municipal police departments in Texas, most of which are tasked to handle school-based behaviors that are best addressed by counselors or other trained staff.

Surprisingly, some of the SRO-issued tickets, complaints, and arrests in our 2011-2015 data set are for behaviors that are not even considered criminal offenses in the Texas Penal Code, such as:

  • “Enforcement of Rules”
  • “Uncooperative Student”
  • “Student Code of Conduct – Miscellaneous”
  • “Fail to Comply with Requirements”
  • “Mental Health”

Violations like these may have been created through a provision in the Texas Education Code (Section 37.02) that allows for school districts to establish “Rules” for governing student behavior, including the parking and operation of vehicles on school campuses. Though school districts may create general rules, only violations of the parking rules are considered criminal offenses, under the jurisdiction of the local Justice or Municipal court

While there were few of the violations listed above in the data set, the law is clear that there should not be any at all.

The data also revealed that approximately 200 Class C misdemeanor cases were filed against students for behavior classified as “Other” or “N/A.” It is impossible to know what behavior was punished in these cases.

Given this lack of clear and accurate reporting of SRO activity, our data likely underestimate the extent to which school districts and municipal police departments are criminalizing school behavior.

In the following sections, we examine patterns of activity across the 79 agencies in our 2011-2015 sample of school district police departments and municipal police departments providing SROs to Texas schools, highlighting current trends and practices contributing to the continued criminalization of school behavior across the state. These incidents raise serious questions about whether SROs are necessary for school safety and about the long-term effects of SRO programs on youths’ social, emotional, and intellectual development.

A Closer Look: Class C Misdemeanor Tickets and Complaints

Over the past decade tickets and complaints have comprised a majority of disciplinary actions by SROs. Even with the dramatic drop in SRO activity over the past four years, this has not changed. About 57% of the SRO actions captured by our 2011-2015 sample were Class C misdemeanor tickets and complaints (which are punishable by fine only and usually involve classroom misbehavior or other non-violent behaviors like petty theft) compared to 40% arrests and just 3% use of force without citation or arrest. This is true despite the 90% decrease in tickets and complaints from 2011-12 to 2014-15, illustrated below.

Note: For consistency, school districts without citation data for one or more years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=41). 
Note: For consistency, school districts without citation data for one or more years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=41). 

While we were able to obtain some detailed data from the districts in our sample, we were also able to get general data showing juvenile Class C misdemeanors statewide. The Office of Court Administration (OCA) provides data showing the number of Class C misdemeanor juvenile cases filed in Justice and Municipal courts across the state. Unfortunately, it is not clear which of these cases come from complaints filed in response to school-based behavior and which are based on off-campus behavior. Still, the data give us a sense of how often youth in Texas are being charged with certain criminal offenses: 59,054 Class C misdemeanor cases were filed against juveniles in the 2015-16 school year.

Note: The chart does not include Failure to Attend School cases, Parent Contributing to Nonattendance cases, Contempt cases, Detention hearings, Traffic cases, or transfers to Juvenile Court. The data do not include cases for students 17 years old and older, who are not considered juveniles in Texas. Data collected from the Texas Office of Court Administration. 
Note: The chart does not include Failure to Attend School cases, Parent Contributing to Nonattendance cases, Contempt cases, Detention hearings, Traffic cases, or transfers to Juvenile Court. The data do not include cases for students 17 years old and older, who are not considered juveniles in Texas. Data collected from the Texas Office of Court Administration

While raw counts of Class C misdemeanor tickets and complaints decreased over the past four years, the proportion of Class C tickets and complaints for some types of offenses has also changed. As shown below, after 2012-13, Class C offenses such as Disorderly Conduct and Curfew Violation made up a smaller share of tickets and complaints than before 2012-13. But the proportion of complaints for Disorderly Conduct have begun to increase again—rising from 18% of complaints in 2013-14 back up to 29% in 2014-15.

Top 10 Offense Types Among Class C Misdemeanor Tickets and Complaints (2011-2015)

Note: School districts without offense type data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=34). 
Note: School districts without offense type data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=34). 

The Top Class C Misdemeanor Offenses Defined:

Many youth in Texas are charged with the Class C misdemeanors of Disorderly Conduct and Curfew Violation, which means that they may face $500 fines and criminal records for the following behaviors:

What is “Disorderly Conduct”?

According to the Texas Penal Code, Section 42.01, a person engages in Disorderly Conduct when they intentionally or knowingly use “vulgar language,” make “offensive gestures,” make threats, create “unreasonable odor[s],” make “unreasonable noise[s], or “[fight] with another in a public place.” 

What is a “Curfew Violation”?

Curfews for Texas youth are set by local ordinances, as authorized by Local Government Code Sections 341.905 and 351.903. Typically, these ordinances prohibit, with some exceptions, standing, walking, running, driving, or otherwise being in public places during curfew hours.

What is “Assault”?

Several sections of the Texas Penal Code address assault yet there is no clear and exact meaning of what types of behavior constitute the offense. Assault may include one person injuring another, but may also include threatening bodily injury or “offensive” touching. In practice, youth have been charged with assault for behavior like throwing classroom materials.

District-level trends further illustrate how recent policy changes regarding Texas’ treatment of classroom behavior have unfolded. Looking at individual districts, Class C misdemeanor tickets and complaints are distributed rather unevenly across the state, with most offenses occurring in a relatively small subset of school districts and concentrated in large metropolitan areas. The following table presents the 10 school districts with the highest totals for Class C misdemeanor tickets and complaints, which account for more than half of the total tickets and complaints in our 2011-2015 data set. Among the 55 school district police departments with citation data, Houston ISD leads the list, averaging more than 1,500 tickets and complaints per year over the past four years.

Top 10 Highest Average Tickets and Complaints (2011-2015)

Note: Overall, the districts above experienced an 88% decrease in tickets and complaints from 2011-12 to 2014-15. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=55).
Note: Overall, the districts above experienced an 88% decrease in tickets and complaints from 2011-12 to 2014-15. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=55).

Granted, averages of raw totals for tickets and complaints do not tell the full story. Texas Appleseed also examined district-level data by citation rates, accounting for district size. The table below presents districts ranked by their ticketing and complaint rates (total tickets and complaints / total students) for the 2014-15 school year. A few small districts in the table stand out as particularly punitive to students given the sizes of their student bodies. Mount Pleasant ISD, for example, has just under 5,500 students, yet issued 267 complaints in 2014-15 (or 49 complaints for every 1,000 students). By comparison, Red Oak ISD (ranked #30) is similarly sized and issued only one complaint per 1,000 students enrolled in 2014-15.

Ticketing and Complaint Rates by District (2014-15)

Note: “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=55).
Note: “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=55).
Note: The rate at which Bastrop ISD students receive tickets and complaints could be much higher than this table indicates, as Bastrop ISD also contracts with the local Sheriff’s Department for SROs. *Four agencies reported ticketing and complaint data by fiscal year. “NA” inserted wherever agencies could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to municipal police departments (n=6).
Note: The rate at which Bastrop ISD students receive tickets and complaints could be much higher than this table indicates, as Bastrop ISD also contracts with the local Sheriff’s Department for SROs. *Four agencies reported ticketing and complaint data by fiscal year. “NA” inserted wherever agencies could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to municipal police departments (n=6).

We also examined ticketing and complaint rates from municipal police departments contracting SROs to their local districts through written agreements (often referred to as “Memoranda of Understanding” (MOU)). The six municipal police departments in our sample tend to serve smaller school districts but issue about as many tickets and complaints as school district police departments considering the sizes of their districts.

Considering our 2011-2015 citation data as a whole, SRO-issued tickets and complaints are now far less common than they were just five years ago, curbed mostly by sweeping legislative changes in 2013 and 2015, and thus may be funneling fewer students into the school-to-prison pipeline. But there is still a lot of work to do. Although widespread reductions in school-based tickets and complaints have been encouraging, the citations that continue to be made are often for low-level offenses and have the potential to increase if left unchecked. In the coming years, Texas schools must work to reduce school-based citations and ensure that recently eliminated offenses are not simply reclassified under different names.

A Closer Look: Class C Misdemeanor Arrests

School-based arrests are generally less common than school-based citations, comprising about 40% of the disciplinary actions by SROs in our 2011-2015 sample (versus 57% tickets and complaints). However, as with tickets and complaints, many school-based arrests are for low-level misdemeanor offenses.

Encouragingly, school-based arrests have dropped over the past four years, too, but they have shown more attenuated change and have decreased more evenly across offense types than school-based citations. Rather than shift a few targeted offense types at a time (as we observed with the elimination of Disruption of Class/Transportation tickets and complaints), each of the top 10 offenses for arrests decreased about 1-2% per year. Examining all of the cases in our 2011-2015 sample that were identified by offense type, only Disorderly Conduct decreased by more than 5%, dropping from 4,061 arrests (or 10% of those identified by offense type) in 2011-12 to just 305 arrests (or 3% of those identified by offense type) in 2014-15. This was perhaps due to considerable overlap between Disorderly Conduct and Disruption of Class/Transportation in their definition and interpretation.

Top 10 Offense Types Among Class C Misdemeanor Arrests (2011-2015)

As with tickets and complaints, a relatively small number of districts account for the majority of arrests by SROs over the past four years. In 2014-15, the districts with the 10 highest rates of arrest accounted for 72% of the total arrests in the entire sample. Austin ISD and San Antonio ISD ranked highest in our sample for average number of arrests by SROs over the past four years. Additionally, Austin ISD (#1) alone averaged more than five times as many arrests as Aldine ISD (#10).

Top 10 Highest Arrest Averages, All Offense Levels (2011-2015)

Note: Overall, the districts above experienced a 54% decrease in arrests from 2011-12 to 2014-15. Several large districts with high SRO activity are not included on this list due to insufficient reporting. For instance, Houston ISD has not been able to produce even aggregate arrest data since Texas Appleseed first began researching this issue in 2006-07. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).
Note: Overall, the districts above experienced a 54% decrease in arrests from 2011-12 to 2014-15. Several large districts with high SRO activity are not included on this list due to insufficient reporting. For instance, Houston ISD has not been able to produce even aggregate arrest data since Texas Appleseed first began researching this issue in 2006-07. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).

Regarding arrest rates, SROs in Winnsboro ISD, Laredo ISD, and Edgewood ISD had the highest 2014-15 rates in the sample, each with more than 10 arrests per 1,000 students (though Winnsboro ISD averaged only 13 arrests per year from 2011-12 to 2014-15, which is considerably lower than the districts with the next two highest averages).

Arrest Rates by District, All Offense Levels (2014-15)

Note: *Point Isabel ISD reported data by calendar year rather than academic year (2015 arrests shown above). “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).
Note: *Point Isabel ISD reported data by calendar year rather than academic year (2015 arrests shown above). “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).

A Closer Look: Use of Force Incidents

Texas Appleseed obtained overall totals for use of force incidents, by district, for the past four years. Although interpretation of our requests for use of force data varied widely, school districts typically defined “use of force” as any incident in which an SRO or school official physically restrained or subdued a student without issuing a complaint, ticket, or arrest.

Generally, use of force data was less available than complaint, ticket, and arrest data, and record-keeping for this type of incident was inconsistent even within districts. Still, Texas Appleseed was able to obtain complete use of force data from 19 school district police departments. Among those districts, Ector County ISD, Dallas ISD, and Brownsville ISD lead in their average numbers of use of force incidents over the past four years. Considering district size, Ector County ISD, Aransas County ISD, and East Central ISD lead the others.

Total Use of Force Incidents by District (2011-2015)

Note: “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=19).
Note: “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=19).

Examining Incidents by Student Gender

Among the cases in the data set that were identified by gender, roughly 74% were male and 26% were female, demonstrating an over-representation of male students—who are 51% of the student population—in receiving disciplinary actions from SROs. This trend was highly consistent across incident types but was by far the most pronounced among use of force incidents. In 2014-15, about 84% of use of force incidents involved boys compared to only 15% involving girls.

Note: School districts without gender data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without gender data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without gender data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=30).
Note: School districts without gender data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=30).
Note: School districts without gender data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=15).
Note: School districts without gender data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=15).

Examining Incidents by Age and Grade (Elementary, Middle, and High School)

Although a majority of disciplinary actions by SROs go to older students, alarming proportions of these incidents involve younger students, too. As the charts below illustrate, elementary school students have received an increasing percentage of tickets/complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents over the past four years. Middle school students have received as much as 36% of tickets/complaints, 33% of arrests, and 45% of use of force incidents, often more than high schoolers in the data set.

Note: School districts without age data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=29).
Note: School districts without age data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=29).
Note: School districts without age data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=31).
Note: School districts without age data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=31).
Note: School districts without age data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=15).
Note: School districts without age data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=15).

It is clear that positive changes in the laws that govern school discipline have real, measurable impacts for Texas youth. It is also clear that school districts across the state continue to rely on harmful, overly-punitive discipline methods, to the peril of all students, including young students and boys. New reforms must be adopted to ensure Texas school districts create safe, supportive schools for all students.

Data: School-based Referrals to Juvenile Probation

Through Open Records Requests to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Texans Care for Children received data on referrals and arrests of youth to juvenile probation based on the “school-related location” of a youth’s offense for calendar year 2015. The data we reviewed included a breakdown of offenses that occurred at (1) a school-related location, including on campus or at a school-related event, and (2) not a school-related location. At the state level we analyzed all referrals to juvenile probation in calendar year 2015 with data broken down by race as well as by age. We also reviewed data from the 20 largest counties for calendar year 2015; this data was broken down by race, but not by age.

What Happens When Youth are Referred to Juvenile Probation?

When youth are referred to juvenile probation, they are taken to the local juvenile probation department, where they are questioned and fingerprinted. The referral then becomes a part of their record. While their record is not available to the public, even if they are not adjudicated (the juvenile justice equivalent of found guilty), that record is made available to law enforcement and may bias police in later interactions. A determination is then made about whether the youth will be released to a parent or detained.  If it is determined necessary, the youth may be detained in the juvenile detention center for up to two days before seeing a judge for a detention hearing, who may extend the time the youth remains in detention. 

While many youth end up on informal probation without going to court (deferred prosecution), the most common outcome when youth are referred to juvenile probation is probation. Probation often includes a combination of placement in a treatment center or a secure probation facility and community-based probation that keeps the youth in their home, checking in with their probation officer. Youth may also receive rehabilitative treatment in their community.  Research has shown that processing youth through the juvenile justice system can increase a youth’s chance of acting out again, creating a cycle of delinquency and justice involvement.

Referrals to juvenile probation include referrals by non-law enforcement entities as well as arrests by law enforcement entities or police departments. The data do not distinguish a law enforcement arrest from a referral directly from school officials or others. When a youth is handcuffed and taken directly to detention, it is classified as a “referral to juvenile probation.” Most often, youth enter the juvenile justice system after being arrested by law enforcement, but they can also be referred directly to a juvenile probation department by schools, Justice and Municipal courts, and other community entities. When youth are arrested or referred to county-run juvenile probation departments, records are created and data can be tracked about each youth.

The data collection systems used by probation departments have a field titled “School Related Location.” The field has two possible selections “OCAM – On Campus” and “OTHR – School Related Activity –On/Off Campus.”  On campus locations can include classrooms, lunchrooms, parking lots, adjacent football fields, etc. School-related activities can include sporting events, dances, fundraisers, academic competitions, field trips, etc. Our analysis refers to offenses identified as having occurred on campus or at a school-related event as “school-related.”

The juvenile probation data is disaggregated to the county level but not the school district or campus level. This analysis cannot tell us how specific schools, school districts, or police departments are operating, however it can and does tell us how students in different counties are faring.

Of the 59,637 referrals of youth to juvenile probation in calendar year 2015, at least 16,814, or 28%, resulted from behavior that occurred on campus or at a school-related event. While younger youth (10- to 12-year-olds) enter juvenile probation at much lower rates than older youth, they are much more likely to be referred to juvenile probation for school-related offenses than their older peers. In 2015, at least 46% of referrals to juvenile probation for 10- to 12-year-olds came from schools.

Statewide, youth are referred to juvenile probation for a school-related offense at a rate of at least 5.3 referrals per 1,000 youth. Looking at the 20 largest counties in Texas, the rate at which youth are referred to juvenile probation from schools varies from a rate of 17.6 to 3.4 referrals per 1,000 youth. Youth in three counties—Webb County, Lubbock County and Brazos County—were referred to juvenile probation for school-based behavior at a rate three times the statewide rate.

Data entry errors—juvenile probation department officials not inputting school-related location information in a youth’s record—could potentially account for some of the variability. However, in most cases, the counties with the highest rates of referral from schools also have higher rates of referral of youth to probation regardless of the location of offense, which are likely driven up by school-based referrals. In fact, the three counties with the highest rates of referrals from schools have school-based referral rates that are higher than the overall referral rate to juvenile probation, from any location, in six of Texas’ largest counties.

As the chart below shows, the data tell us that schools, particularly in certain communities, too often turn to the juvenile justice system through either direct referrals from school or through arrests at school to respond to student behavior rather than addressing student behavior, and the underlying issues that may lead to it, on campus.

School-Based Referral Rates Versus Referral Rates Among General Population (2015)

Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

The most common offenses that lead youth to juvenile probation directly from school are misdemeanor drug offenses (e.g., possession of marijuana), misdemeanor assault (e.g., school yard fights), and “other misdemeanors,” which includes offenses like disruptive behavior at school (disrupting lawful assembly at school), harassment, and disorderly conduct with three priors, among others. These three offense categories alone make up more than half of all referrals to juvenile probation from schools. Arrest or referral to juvenile probation does not mean that that the offense identified at arrest is appropriate or that prosecutors would be willing to continue with the specific charge. For example, multiple juvenile probation chiefs have reported youth being referred to their department for “Aggravated Assault” and “Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon” for behaviors like hitting another youth with a pencil without causing an injury.

Notably, at least 338 youth were referred to juvenile probation directly from schools for contempt of magistrate. It is likely that many of these are youth were arrested at and removed from school for not meeting the terms of Justice and Municipal court orders like paying fines for Class C misdemeanors.  

School-Related Offenses for Which Youth Were Referred to Juvenile Probation (2015)

Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Examining Referrals by Department Size

While not all Texas juvenile probation departments were included in our data request, we did receive data regarding small, medium and large probation departments.

In Texas, are considered large (all are included in the analysis above).  There are (including 12 of the counties analyzed above) and .

The eight large probation departments make up 54.2% of the 2015 juvenile age population in Texas and received 48.8% of the school-based referrals to juvenile probation across the state.  Medium-sized probation departments serve 34% of the population and received 39.6% of the referrals; and small counties have 11.8% of the youth population and had 11.7% of the state’s referrals.

Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Overall, youth are referred to medium-sized probation departments for school-based offenses at higher rates than youth are referred for school-based offenses to large or small departments, with youth in large, urban counties being referred at the lowest rates.  While youth are being referred at higher rates for school-based offenses in medium counties, Black and Latino youth receive the brunt of those referrals while White youth are referred for school-based offenses at roughly the same rate as they are in large and small counties.  In medium counties, Black and Latino youth become justice involved for school-based offenses at 3.2 times and 2.4 times the rate as White youth in medium counties.

Black and Latino youth are referred from school to small probation departments at the same rates, which is 2.5 times the rate that White youth are referred to small departments.  It is worth noting that disparities likely exist between referrals to each small department, as can be seen between referrals to large departments. Just as we cannot make inferences about the practices of particular schools or districts based on this data, when looking at the data by size of probation departments the youth are referred to from school, we cannot make assumptions about the schools or districts in a particular county or judicial district.

Note: Each rate has been rounded to the nearest whole number. Data obtained through an Open Records request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Each rate has been rounded to the nearest whole number. Data obtained through an Open Records request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

In sum, the data tell us that behavior in the classroom, in school, and at school-related events can lead to large numbers of youth landing in the juvenile justice system – statewide at least 28% of all referrals to the juvenile justice system originate at school. School districts must prioritize strategies that keep youth in class and out of the justice system.

Data: The Policing of Black and Latino Students

The over-representation of Black and Latino youth is not due to a natural predisposition to misbehave, a culture of disobedience, or actual higher rates of punishable behavior. Rather, research shows that students of color are punished more often and more harshly than their White peers, though they are not more likely to misbehave:

“there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.”

Texas, like other states, exhibits discriminatory trends in its punishment of public school students.  The Council of State Governments found that while Black children were over-represented when educators had the discretion to punish certain behaviors, there were no race-based differences when educators were mandated by law to punish behavior:

-Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, The Council of State Governments
Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement, The Council of State Governments

How Implicit Bias Helps to Explain Racial Disparities

Implicit Bias:  [T]he attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. 

These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. . . . The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.  These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. 

The Kirwan Institute                                    

A growing body of research points to implicit bias as one factor that can lead to the disproportionate punishment of certain groups of students. For example, while an educator or officer may not explicitly believe that Black students are more likely to misbehave than their White peers, that person’s unconscious negative beliefs about Black people—formed and confirmed by a lifetime of overt and subtle messages—may lead to a decision to punish Black students more harshly and frequently.

It is important to remember that while implicit bias has been shown to contribute to disparities in school discipline, addressing implicit bias alone will not end the harmful consequences associated with the school-to-prison pipeline.  The current system of policies and practices that allow for the use of overly-punitive school discipline has, in effect, given implicit bias space to thrive, despite clear harms to children of color, LGBTQ youth, and children with disabilities.  We need a fundamental shift in the way we think about supporting children in public schools.  

For more information about implicit bias, see Texas Appleseed’s SXSW Edu presentation that discusses the impact of implicit bias in housing and education, and take a look at this Yale University study, finding that implicit bias among pre-school teachers impacts how they evaluate the behavior of very young students.

Examining Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, and Use of Force Incidents by Student Race

Among the tickets/complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents in our new data set that were identified by race, roughly 51% involved Latino students, 22% involved Black students, 19% involved White students, and 1% involved Asian American, American Indian, or multiracial students. This demonstrates an alarming over-representation of Black students in disciplinary actions, as Black students comprise only 13% of the student body in Texas public schools (versus 52% Latino, 29% White, and 6% Asian American, American Indian, or multiracial).

The following charts show such racial disparities in SRO-issued tickets/complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents. The data clearly show that, for every action type and every year, Black students are consistently over-represented in disciplinary actions. For instance, Black students in our sample received 32% of tickets and complaints 2011-2015 though they comprise only 13% of the student body in Texas.

Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: In addition to consistent over-representation of Black students in citations 2011-2015, our data show slight over-representation of White students in 2014-15 citations (only). School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: In addition to consistent over-representation of Black students in citations 2011-2015, our data show slight over-representation of White students in 2014-15 citations (only). School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).

Likewise, in many of the districts with the highest rates of tickets and complaints over the past four years, Black students receive two to four times as many disciplinary actions as their representation in the student body. In Austin ISD, for example, 20% of complaints and tickets went to Black students, who make up just 8% of the district’s students overall. In Dallas ISD 49% of tickets and complaints went to Black students, who make up about 23% of Dallas’ public school population.

However, not all offenses are issued equally, and some offense-level data point to tickets and complaints becoming slightly more equitable for Black students in recent years. Consider the relationship between “Disruption of Class” and “Disorderly Conduct” offenses, the former of which was eliminated by Senate Bill 393 and both of which are disproportionately issued to Black students. As shown below, before Senate Bill 393, Black students received 35% of “Disruption of Class” tickets and 37% of “Disorderly Conduct” tickets. Following Senate Bill 393, Black students received only 26% of “Disorderly Conduct” complaints, showing some improvement (though 26% is still disproportionately high).

Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
 
 

Trends for arrests and use of force incidents have been more consistent over the past four years. In our sample, Black students accounted for 22% of arrests and 40% of use of force incidents over the past four years though they comprise only 13% of the student population statewide.

Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).

Examining Juvenile Probation Referrals by Student Race

The data show that Black youth and, to a lesser degree Latino youth, are over-represented in arrests and referrals to juvenile probation for school-based offenses. Of all youth who were referred to juvenile probation from schools in 2015, 25% were Black, 53% were Latino, 21% were White and 1% were classified as “Other.” Statewide population data show that, among youth ages 10 to 17, 14% are Black, 46% are Latino, 34% are White and 6% are classified as “Other.”

The chart below shows the total the number of referrals statewide over the course of 2015 and the percentage of all school-related referrals, disaggregated by race.  Students classified as “Other” are categorized this way in the data received from TJJD and cannot be broken down further.  Offenses with fewer than five referrals in multiple race categories and in school-related events are excluded from the list because of the variability in the totals.

Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Statewide, youth are referred from school to juvenile probation at a rate of at least 5.3 referrals per 1,000 youth. White youth are referred at a rate of 3.3 referrals per thousand, while Latino youth are referred at a rate almost double the rate of White youth, and Black youth at almost triple the rate of White youth.

School-Based Referrals to Juvenile Probation by Race (2015)

 
 

Youth as young as 10 years old can be referred to the juvenile justice system in Texas. When breaking the statewide data down by age, it is clear that the youngest youth enter the juvenile justice system at a much lower rate than older youth. However, the trend of Black and Latino youth being pushed to juvenile justice from school at much higher rates than White youth starts early.

Note: Each rate has been rounded to the nearest whole number.
Note: Each rate has been rounded to the nearest whole number.

While schools referred Latino and White 10-year-olds to probation at roughly the same rate, 11-, 12- and 13-year-old Latino youth are referred to probation at nearly double the rate of White youth, while Black youth are referred at rates that are 2.5 to 3.5 times the rates of White youth in all age groups.

Statewide, 12-year-old Black youth are referred to juvenile probation from school at the same rate as 15- and 16-year-old White youth.

A study by the American Psychological Association found that “Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime . . . .”

The study tested the explicit and unconscious biases of 176 police officers and 264 undergraduate students and found evidence that supported the researchers’ hypotheses and expectations that:

  • “Black boys are seen as less ‘childlike’ than their White peers” 
  • “the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys”
  • “individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence” 

The researchers also found that:

  • officers who dehumanized Black people in unconscious bias tests were more likely to have used force against a Black child in custody
  • on average, the student respondents overestimated the ages of Black children by 4.5 years and determined that Black children were more culpable than White or Latino children, especially when respondents were given details about serious crimes

Disparities are Worse in Certain Counties

While nearly all of the 20 largest Texas counties have an over-representation of Black youth arrested at or referred by schools, in a few counties, Black youth are under-represented, particularly counties that have a predominately Latino population: El Paso (84% of county youth population is Latino), Cameron (92%), Hidalgo (93%), and Webb Counties (95%). In Collin County, the county with the lowest rate of referral to juvenile probation from school, Black and “Other” youth are slightly under-represented in referrals to juvenile probation from school while Latino youth are over-represented and White youth are slightly over-represented.

While the trend of over-representation of Black and Latino youth across the state is concerning and needs to be addressed, the rate at which schools and police send youth from school straight to juvenile probation in some counties—for behaviors that in other counties are not leading youth to the justice system—is alarming.

As noted above, youth are sent to juvenile probation from schools at a rate of 5.3 referrals per 1,000 youth statewide. However, in Brazos County and Lubbock County, Black youth are referred to juvenile probation from schools at a rate of 44 and 42 referrals per 1,000 Black youth respectively, a rate that is about eight times higher than the statewide average. In both counties, White youth are sent from school to juvenile probation at below the statewide rate. White youth in Lubbock are arrested and referred at a rate of 4 referrals per 1,000 White youth and in Brazos County the rate is 4.9 per 1,000 White youth. Both counties have extremely alarming referral rates for Latino youth as well: Lubbock’s is 22.9 and Brazos’s is 15.8.

Webb County, where only Latino youth received school-based referrals in 2015, also has an alarming 18.8 referral rate for Latino youth.

In Galveston County, both White and Latino youth are referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses at a rate of 5.3 referrals per 1,000 youth—the same as the overall state referral rate for all students.  However, Black youth in Galveston County are referred to probation for school-related offenses at a rate of 19.2 referrals per 1,000 youth, nearly four times the rate for White and Latino youth.

The data show that in counties where referral rates may be low or average overall, the disparities in how youth of color are treated in comparison to how White youth are treated can still be drastic. For example, overall, Travis County has a school-based referral rate that is near the state average, but Black youth are referred to juvenile probation at a rate 5.4 times the rate of White youth, and Latino youth are referred at a rate 3.7 times higher than White youth.

School-Based Referrals to Juvenile Probation by County and Race (2015)

It is important to note that there may be data entry errors that could consist of failure to designate a referral as originating in a school, so school-based referrals could be higher than the rates calculated in this analysis. While it is possible that addressing the errors could potentially show a slight increase or decrease in the racial disparities of those referrals, the racial disparities that also exist within the referrals that are not school-based make significant changes unlikely.

To get a better understanding of the racial disparities in school-based referrals to juvenile probation, we created a disparities score for each of the 20 counties that we analyzed, as well as the state as a whole to determine the disparities between the referral rates of White youth and Black youth and the disparities between White youth and Latino youth.  The disparities score is the ratio of the referral rate for youth of color to White youth.  A score of one means there is no difference in the rate of referral between Black or Latino youth and White youth.

Statewide, including all juvenile probation departments, the Black disparities scores is 2.86, meaning Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for a school-related offense at a rate 2.86 times higher than their White peers. The Latino disparities score statewide is 1.87.  Statewide, Latino youth fare better than Black youth when they make a mistake at school, but they are still referred to probation at a rate 1.87 times higher than their White peers.

In the five counties with the worst disparities between Black and White youth—Lubbock, Brazos, Travis, Fort Bend, McClennan and Tarrant Counties—Black youth are referred at a rate more than 4.5 times the rate of White youth.

In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Black youth referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County and Cameron County are are not included in this graph, because there were no referrals from school of Black youth from either county in 2015, and no White youth were referred from Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Black youth referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County and Cameron County are are not included in this graph, because there were no referrals from school of Black youth from either county in 2015, and no White youth were referred from Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Latino youth referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County is not included are not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of White youth in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Latino youth referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County is not included are not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of White youth in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]

Schools and school-based police use the juvenile justice system to respond to behavior by youth of color, particularly Black youth, at much greater rates than they use it for White youth.  While the rate at which schools use the juvenile justice system to respond to school-based behavior and the racial disparities in those rates can vary drastically from county to county, it is clear the trend of using the justice system to address school behavior needs to be addressed.

Data: The Policing of Disabled Youth

Of the 72 school districts that were sent requests for data, only 14 school districts maintained data fully disaggregated by special education status, but among them, students with disabilities appear to show similar disproportionalities as Black students and male students. Consistent with previous research showing that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be detained, arrested, or otherwise harshly punished in public schools, students in our sample with disabilities received a disproportionate share of complaints/tickets, arrests, and use of force incidents. For arrests alone, students with disabilities experienced twice as many incidents as their representation in the student body—24% versus 9%, respectively.

Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).
Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).
The Houston Chronicle
The Houston Chronicle

A recent multi-part investigative piece by the Houston Chronicle revealed the impact of a Texas Education Agency policy that discourages school districts from identifying more than 8.5% of students as needing special education services. The Houston Chronicle estimates that 250,000 Texas children have been denied special education services because of the arbitrary cap. It is reasonable to assume that the numbers of youth with disabilities reported as having had interactions with courts and police are also artificially low—since many districts are failing to identify students who need special education services, they are likely not providing those students with the services required by federal law to support their educational success, and instead inappropriately relying on police and courts to address behavior stemming from a disability.

A number of Texas lawyers and advocates have reported representing and working with youth who were arrested and/or sent to court for behavior that stemmed from their disabilities.  Many of these students and their families had requested evaluations and services from their schools but were denied, in clear violation of federal law.

The use of school police and courts to address low-level infractions is inappropriate for any student, but presents unique harms for students with disabilities. Schools and districts must ensure that students with disabilities are given appropriate supports, not subjected to arrests, use of force, and court involvement.

Data: The School Policing Survey

In addition to collecting aggregate data on disciplinary actions by school police officers from state and local agencies, Texas Appleseed created a School Policing Survey to assess youths’ impressions of school police and school climate. The survey asked youth for information about their daily experiences with school police officers.

We were especially interested in the experiences of deeply system-involved youth, currently incarcerated in juvenile facilities, whose experiences shed light on the effects of Texas’ over-reliance on law enforcement officials from beginning to end. For these students, the school-to-prison pipeline has very immediate and complex effects. The nature of the interactions between these students and SROs is frequently missing from discussions of school-based law enforcement, and is thus the focus of this chapter.

Our 2015 survey examined 425 currently-incarcerated youths’ most recent interactions with SROs in a school environment, and their attitudes about school police following those experiences.

Administering the Survey

In collaboration with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), Texas Appleseed administered a School Policing Survey to 425 youth currently incarcerated in state-run secure juvenile facilities throughout Texas. Participating facilities included:

  • Evins Regional Juvenile Center (Edinburg, TX)
  • Gainesville State School (Gainesville, TX)
  • Giddings State School (Giddings, TX)
  • McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility (Mart, TX)
  • Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex (Brownwood, TX)

The five-page survey asked youth about their most recent interactions with SROs through multiple-choice and open-ended items tapping their firsthand and secondhand experiences, perceptions of their school climates given SRO presence, future expectations for interacting with SROs, and other experiences with the juvenile justice system.

Participants were encouraged to skip any item they were not comfortable with, so our data is necessarily incomplete. However, completed items provide many powerful insights into the role of SRO officers in these teenagers’ lives before they entered TJJD facilities. The following section presents Texas Appleseed’s analyses of their firsthand accounts.  

Survey Results  

Individual Characteristics

As with the general population of students interacting with SROs on a daily basis, a majority of students in TJJD facilities are Latino and White, but Black students, boys, and low-income students are vastly over-represented.

Black youth made up approximately 26% of the students we surveyed, though they comprise only 13% of the school-aged population in Texas.

 
 

Similarly, boys and low- income students receive several times their expected share of TJJD assignments. Boys made up about 95% of our TJJD study sample though they are only about half the school-aged population in Texas. Low-income youth were also over-represented in our study sample, with 62% of our survey participants reporting that they were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch at school prior to entering a TJJD facility. Moreover, the latter statistic likely underestimates poverty among TJJD youth, as other research has shown as much as 95% of incarcerated juveniles come from low-income backgrounds (and many youth in our sample answered “don’t know” to our item about free or reduced-price lunch).

Positive and Negative Interactions with School Resource Officers Prior to Entering a TJJD Facility

We started the survey with questions about youths’ earliest experiences with law enforcement in schools. Consistent with other studies examining incarcerated youths’ movement through the juvenile justice system, many TJJD youths’ first negative interactions with SROs occurred very early and escalated from there. Out of the 425 youth we surveyed:

  • 64% had been repeatedly stopped or questioned by SROs at school before entering a TJJD facility (beginning between ages 12 and 13 on average)
  • 66% had been ticketed or sent to court by an SRO or school official at least once before entering a TJJD facility
  • 35% had been arrested by an SRO at school before entering a TJJD facility

In addition, a majority of the TJJD youth who were ticketed or arrested at school were initially disciplined by SROs for minor, non-violent behaviors similar to the Class C misdemeanor offenses discussed earlier in this report. The most commonly endorsed experiences involved students being cited for truancy (35%) or fighting (33%). These pattens support the notion that the school-to-prison pipeline starts early, is often initiated by excessively harsh punishments for low-level offenses, and disproportionately affects students of color, boys, and low-income students.

Next, we asked youth how frequently they interacted with school-based law enforcement before entering a TJJD facility and assessed the quality of those interactions, including both positive and negative experiences. Overall, SROs and other law enforcement officials seem to have a huge presence in system-involved youths’ lives prior to their incarceration. Most youth in our study reported seeing or interacting with police at school nearly every day (the mean response was 4 out of 5 days per week). However, rather than make students feel safer, the youth respondents reported overwhelmingly negative interactions with SROs not just personally but also in their observations of officers’ interactions with their peers.

The following table shows survey participants’ positive versus negative interactions with SROs immediately prior to entering TJJD facilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, currently incarcerated youth report mostly negative experiences with school police officers prior to entering secure juvenile facilities.

TJJD Youths’ Recent Firsthand Experiences with School Resource Officers (2015)

Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about SROs.
Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about SROs.

We then expanded the previous item by asking about youths’ secondhand observations of police officers at school. The youths’ perceptions of SROs’ interactions with their peers were similarly negative.

TJJD Youths’ Recent Secondhand Experiences with School Resource Officers (2015)

Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about SROs.
Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about SROs.

TJJD youths’ firsthand and secondhand observations of SROs demonstrate that many incarcerated youth have overwhelmingly negative experiences with SROs before they even come in contact with the juvenile justice system—and many incarcerated youth attended schools in which they witnessed predominately negative interactions between SROs and students on a daily basis.

Youth similarly reported rather unwelcoming and unsupportive relationships with SROs before being sent to TJJD facilities. When asked whether SROs made them feel safe at their home schools, nearly half of the youth we surveyed reported that school police officers did not make them feel safe.

Furthermore, youth were evenly split on whether SROs at their home schools respected them. About 32% of survey participants agreed and about 33% disagreed to the statement “The police officers at my school respected me.”

When questioned further about the role of SROs in school safety, TJJD youth generally appear to be more likely to go to a school teacher than a school police officer in an emergency situation.

Together, these findings suggest that deeply system-involved youth expect little from SROs in the way of improved school climate or school safety.

Expectations for Future Interactions with School Resource Officers

Finally, we included an experimental component in the survey, in which we examined indirectly TJJD youths’ expectations of police officers given their past experiences. We did this by asking survey participants to predict what would happen next in the relatively ambiguous scenario depicted in this image:

Image credit: Noah Berger / Associated Press
Image credit: Noah Berger / Associated Press

Examples of TJJD participants’ ‘very friendly’ narratives for hallway scenario (just 4% of responses):

>> “He would say hi, ask him about his day [and] where he was going, and then tell him to have a nice day.”

>> “They’ll ask each other how their day is going.”

Examples of TJJD participants’ ‘very hostile’ narratives for hallway scenario (31% of responses):

>> “He will ask him can he search him and arrest him ‘cause he look like a trouble maker.”

>> “Cop will question student. Maybe harass/intimidate him because of his appearance.”

We then asked trained experimenters to rate youths’ narratives for the image on a five-point scale from -2 (very hostile) to +2 (very friendly). Raters were blinded to respondents’ individual characteristics (e.g., race, gender) while rating the narratives and ultimately scored youths’ responses with very high inter-rater reliability (Cohen’s kappa = .98).

TJJD youths’ answers to this final item (and experimenters’ ratings of their answers) were incredibly revealing. We observed that, after having mostly negative experiences with SROs in the past, presently incarcerated youth hold largely negative attitudes toward police officers and are not particularly hopeful that they will make schools safe. More than half of their responses read as either “very hostile” or “somewhat hostile” to blinded coders, and only 4% of responses described “very friendly” interactions between the hypothetical student and police officer. Moreover, in nearly all “very hostile” and “somewhat hostile” narratives for the image, youth described police officers initiating hostile conversations and being unfriendly first.

TJJD youths’ responses to Texas Appleseed’s School Policing Survey provide a useful snapshot of the role of SROs in system-involved students’ lives prior to their incarceration.  Contrary to the common belief that youth, and not adults, guide student-officer interactions, our data suggest that many young students are exposed to negative treatment from law enforcement officials very early and daily. The TJJD survey data presented above suggest that school police are hugely influential in system-involved youths’ lives, leaving lasting impressions on students that are often contrary to the effects we want them to have.

Data: The High Costs of School Police

So, how much do Texas schools’ over-reliance on SROs cost taxpayers? Public school districts with internal police departments spend about $75 per student enrolled on SRO programs, a figure that has been increasing steadily over the past four years despite research showing the harms of current school policing practices and decreasing crime rates statewide. Moreover, our data show that, on average, SRO programs in smaller districts (with fewer than 30,000 students) are even more costly, averaging about $97 per student versus $66 per student in large districts.

School Resource Officer Program Costs by School District Size (2011-2016)

Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).

And those are just the averages. Some outlier districts spent upwards of $200 per student for officers to patrol campuses in 2014-15. The following table presents yearly SRO costs for every school district in our study sample that provided financial data. It shows the districts’ total SRO-related expenses, including officer salaries and benefits, for FY 2011-12 through FY 2014-15. The table also presents each SRO program’s costs “per capita” for 2014-15 (calculated as total 2014-15 expenses / total 2014-15 students). In 2014-15, Coldspring-Oakhurst CISD and Eagle Mount-Saginaw ISD showed the highest financial burdens for taxpayers, spending $227 and $199 per student on their SRO programs respectively.

School Resource Officer Program Costs by School District (2011-2016)

Note: “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
Note: “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).

Typically, most of this money was used to discipline students for non-violent offenses like “Disorderly Conduct” and “Curfew Violation.” Going back to Coldspring-Oakhurst ISD, for example, which issued only 64 citations and 158 arrests of students over the past four years combined but spent $821,000 on its SRO program; that is effectively $3,700 per disciplinary action, most of which were for disruptive classroom behavior, Class C misdemeanor-level assault, and possession of tobacco on a campus.

The table above is perhaps the most harrowing illustration of school districts’ persistent prioritization of punishment over prevention, which costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Overall, our sample shows Texans paid $79 million for SRO programs across our relatively small sample of 53 school districts with financial data (out of 1,247 total districts in 2014-15). By comparison, Texas allocated about $666 million to school counselor salaries in 2013-14. This means that, on average, each of the 53 school districts from our sample spent over $1.4 million on school police officers, far exceeding the average amount spent on counselor salaries in Texas’ 1,247 school districts: approximately $534,000 per district.

Our 2011-2015 data suggest that Texas public schools need new tools for addressing student behavior. Young children and teenagers do not benefit from costly, ineffective school police departments that apply adult policing strategies to youth. Instead, Texas students deserve fair, age-appropriate, evidence-based discipline practices that improve school climate and keep students in class learning.

Best Practices

“Recent research . . . documents that multiple skills are important for life success. For too long, the conventional wisdom has been that I.Q. and cognitive skills as measured by achievement tests . . . were the major social and economic determinants of life success. . . . We have learned that I.Q. isn’t everything and it doesn’t explain very much of the difference between those who succeed and those who do not. For many tasks in life, both in the economy and in larger society, socio-emotional skills—character skills—are as important or more important for success. Socio-emotional skills are highly malleable, especially at a young age. Impulse control, persistence, “grit,” self-awareness and sociability can and should be taught at the very earliest ages—and throughout the school years. These skills drive the engagement, motivation and achievement that promote successful lives as measured by full-time employment, higher wages, healthy lifestyles, less participation in crime, and engagement in a variety of socially productive behaviors.”

“Going Forward Wisely”, speech by Professor James Heckman at the White House Summit on Early Education, December 10, 2014

One of the most effective steps that school districts can take to avoid harmful contact between students and police officers/courts is to adopt research-based positive behavior models and create safe and supportive school climates.  Not only can these models replace the use of overly-punitive discipline methods, but they encourage skills that benefit children for the rest of their lives.  Investment in models that promote positive behavior shows that a school district is mindful of the development of its students into healthy and productive members of society.  Three of these models—Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, Restorative Practices, and Social and Emotional Learning—are highlighted below. Though they may differ in approach, the models are similar in that program success requires educator and staff buy-in, assessments to determine the particular needs of a school or district, and data collection to track program efficacy.

For other reform recommendations, please refer to the Policy Recommendations section of this report.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

PBIS (sometimes referred to school-wide PBIS (SW-PBIS)) is a research-based multi-tiered approach to modeling positive behavior and incorporating that behavior into the culture of a school or district.  In Texas, the Region 4 Education Service Center (ESC) was named the lead ESC for implementing PBIS and does so through the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Texas Behavior Support Network (TBS).

The U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is a great resource for information, forms, and lesson plans on how to successfully implement PBIS at the school, district, and state levels and is the source for the following program description.

PBIS is based on the idea that positive behavioral expectations should be taught just like any core curriculum.  PBIS involves changing systems within a school or district so that, in all areas, positive behaviors are modeled for students.  Usually, a team of administrators and teachers receive training from a PBIS specialist and are then equipped to train and support other teachers, staff, and administrators in the district.  Based on the culture and needs of the school, the team chooses three to five positive, easy to remember behavior expectations, such as:

With buy-in from at least 80% of educators and staff, the team then creates a matrix of the types of non-classroom behaviors that are representative of the chosen expectations.  For example:

One column from a PBIS matrix, from the Technical Assistance Center for PBIS.
One column from a PBIS matrix, from the Technical Assistance Center for PBIS.

Again, after confirming buy-in from at least 80% of educators and staff, the PBIS team works with individual teachers to develop expectation matrices for the classroom.  The team also creates lesson plans for teaching the behavioral expectations, designs what positive supports and affirmations look like, and adjusts discipline referral procedures and forms to reflect the PBIS model.

PBIS is implemented through a three-tiered system.  

Image by the Berkeley Unified School District
Image by the Berkeley Unified School District

Tier 1 “consists of rules, routines, and physical arrangements that are developed and taught by school staff to prevent initial occurrences of behavior the school would like to target for change.”  Expectations are labeled, modeled, and taught to students, and positive behavior is appropriately praised.  Though Tier 1 supports may look different at different school campuses depending on the needs of educators, staff, and students, all campuses should collect and analyze data to evaluate program efficacy and determine how adjustments should be made. Examples of Tier 1 supports include posters, bulletin boards, lessons, and daily pledges.

In 2009, the Texas legislature required the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to implement PBIS in its secure facility schools.  In 2012, TJJD reported that the use of PBIS “appears to be having an impact on the behavior and academic outcomes of youth in secure facilities.”  Specifically, TJJD found reductions in disciplinary referrals, decreased use of physical and mechanical restraints, and increased academic performance. In fact, the success of PBIS was so great that TJJD began implementing the model facility-wide, not just in schools.

Tier 2 supports address the behavioral needs of the smaller portion of students who are having difficulties following the universal Tier 1 supports. Tier 2 involves small group interventions or more intensive individual attention.  Examples of Tier 2 supports include social skills clubs, the creation of Behavioral Intervention Plans, and individualized assessments to determine if outside services are necessary.

Tier 3 supports are for the few students who still need assistance in addition to Tier 1 and 2 interventions. Tier 3 supports are targeted at the individual student and their unique needs and include a behavior assessment and support plan.  These supports are best implemented by a team of teachers, parent/guardian(s), counselors, administrators, and specialists who know the student well and understand the underlying causes of their behavior.

This Texans Care for Children mini-documentary shows the successful use of PBIS in a Texas school.

Restorative Practices

“Restorative Discipline is a whole school relational approach to building school climate and addressing student behavior that fosters belonging over exclusion, social engagement over control, and meaningful accountability over punishment.   Its practices replace fear, uncertainty, and punishment as motivators with belonging, connectedness and the willingness to change because people matter to each other.”

Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue

Restorative Practices (RP), sometimes referred to as Restorative Discipline in the school context, are designed to restore positive relationships while confronting the impacts of the harms that student behavior may cause to individuals and the school environment.  Originally used as a model among indigenous peoples in the South Pacific and Americas, and later in the criminal justice context, the clear efficacy of RP to repair relationships and prevent future harms, without the use of overly-punitive measures, has led to its use in schools.

Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools, A Guide for Educators (The Advancement Project, American Federation of Teachers, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Education Association)
Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools, A Guide for Educators (The Advancement Project, American Federation of Teachers, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Education Association)

Restorative Practices can include the following:

  • Restorative Justice is the practice of bringing together wrongdoers and the individuals who have felt harmed in order to discuss harms and repair relationships.  The act of confronting and reconciling can prevent future inappropriate behaviors and can eliminate the need for overly-punitive measures like classroom exclusions, police interactions, and court involvement.
  • Peer juries involve discussions between students who have behaved inappropriately and trained peer jurors.  Together the students decide the consequences for the undesired actions.
  • Conflict Resolution programs “teach young people how to manage potential conflict, defuse situations, assuage hurt feelings, and reduce any inclination to retaliate after a conflict.” Students are guided through the process of recognizing and processing their emotions in order to address the underlying causes of conflict.

The Dallas ISD schools that began using Restorative Discipline, including restorative circles, saw a 70% reduction in in-school suspensions, a 77% drop in out-of-school suspensions, and a 50% drop in alternative school placements in one year.

  • Peer Mediation programs encourage youth-led conflict resolution by training students to assist other students in resolving problems. “Peer mediation has been shown to reduce discipline referrals, violence rates, and suspension rates.”
  • Community Service allows students who have broken school rules to perform an act that provides a visible and measurable positive contribution to the school environment.
  • Restorative Circles, or “talking circles” are used to bring together students to address harms after they occur or to encourage strong relationships, discuss difficult topics, and prevent problems before they occur. Participants are encouraged to listen to their peers, express their feelings, and find resolution to conflict within the safe space of the circle.

The Texas Education Agency has partnered with the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue (IRJRD) at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work to provide RJ training to Regional Education Service Centers so that the Institute’s restorative justice model is available to school districts across Texas. IRJRD has already seen positive results at Ed White Middle School in North East ISD.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth is using Restorative Justice to change student’s lives.

Social and Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) provides an evidence-based framework for schools to prevent problems and promote student success.  It helps students acquire the skills to recognize and manage emotions, develop caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations effectively.

SEL programming results in significant shifts in social, emotional, and academic competencies as well as improvements in the quality of learning environments.” 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies 5 core competencies that are mastered in successful SEL programs:

  • “Self-awareness: Accurately assessing one’s feelings, interests, values, and strengths; maintaining a well-grounded sense of self-confidence.
  • Self-management: Regulating one’s emotions to handle stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles; setting and monitoring progress toward personal and academic goals; expressing emotions appropriately.
  • Social awareness: Taking the perspective of and empathizing with others; recognizing and appreciating individual and group similarities and differences; recognizing and using family, school, and community resources.
  • Relationship management: Establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding cooperative relationships; resisting inappropriate social pressure; preventing, managing, and resolving interpersonal conflict; seeking help when needed.
  • Responsible Decision-Making: Making decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and probable consequences of various actions; applying decision-making skills to academic and social situations.”
CASEL's Five Core Competencies
CASEL’s Five Core Competencies

Successful SEL implementation requires assessing school or district needs and designing appropriate programs that create supportive school environments with language, lessons, and relationships that focus on the five core competencies.

Edutopia‘s video shows the 5 Keys to a successful Social and Emotional Learning program.

Clearly Limiting the Role of Police in Schools

In addition to using positive behavior models, school districts should adopt district-wide policies and agreements with police departments (whether they are ISD departments or local law enforcement agencies that provide officers to the district) that clearly define the role of police officers on campuses, limit the interactions that officers have with students, and allow for oversight and accountability.  

A community organization in Denver called Padres Y Jovenes Unidos successfully led the local movement for school police reform, developing a comprehensive intergovernmental agreement (IGA),similar to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), between the Denver school system and the Denver Police Department. The Denver IGA (below) includes clear definitions of the role of officers in Denver schools and requires officer training, regular meetings between community stakeholders and officers, and specific due process protections for students.  The Denver IGA is regarded as a model document for other districts seeking to promote positive school climates by defining and restricting the role of police in schools.

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Recommended Policy Changes

Based on the findings in this report, Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children recommend the following policy changes:

TEXAS LEGISLATURE

1. ELIMINATE THE CRIMINAL COMPONENTS OF CLASS C MISDEMEANORS FOR JUVENILES

The data in this report clearly show that students in Texas schools are still being arrested and sent to court for Class C misdemeanors frequently. In 2015, the Texas legislature decriminalized truancy. Now, truancy is a civil offense, still heard in Justice and Municipal courts, but without the fines and threat of a criminal record that the criminal offense carried. The legislature recognized the harms associated with fining youth and saddling them with criminal records.

The Texas legislature should eliminate fines for juveniles convicted of Class C misdemeanors and require automatic expunction of all records related to charges for Class C offenses. Common Class C offenses include Disorderly Conduct and Curfew Violation. Class C offenses could still be heard in Justice and Municipal courts, but the most harmful consequences of being charged with a criminal offense—fines and lasting criminal records—should be eliminated.

2. EXPAND YOUTH-FOCUSED TRAINING TO POLICE OFFICERS IN ALL TEXAS SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Following the passage of House Bill 2684 in 2015, police officers in all school districts in Texas with more than 30,000 students are required to have at least 16 hours of youth-focused training, including training in child and adolescent psychology, research-based conflict resolution techniques, de-escalation techniques, the mental and behavioral needs of children with disabilities, and mental health crisis intervention. The hours required for this training are part of, not in addition to, the 40 hours of training that any officer in Texas is required to have in order to maintain his or her license. Unfortunately the law does not require training for officers in small- and medium-sized districts.

The Texas legislature should expand the youth-focused training requirements of HB 2684 so that they apply to officers who interact with students in all school districts in Texas.

3. IMPROVE DATA COLLECTION ON POLICE ACTIVITIES IN SCHOOLS

Currently there are no laws in Texas that require the collection and publication of data related to school-based arrests, use of force incidents, and citations/complaints.  Students in Texas schools are restrained, come into contact with Tasers and pepper spray, and are sent to court, all without required disclosure to the public.  It is impossible to understand the scope of the problem without mandatory, standardized data collection.

The Texas legislature should task the Texas Judicial Council with developing a system of data collection that will require school district police departments, local police departments that assign or send their officers to schools, and courts to collect and report data related to school-based arrests that send youth to both the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system, use of force incidents, and court contact.

4. ELIMINATE THE USE OF TASERS AND PEPPER SPRAY ON STUDENTS

Police officers in Texas schools are authorized to carry Tasers and pepper spray for use against students.  The use of these weapons harms students and can be dangerous and disruptive for bystanders and the general school environment. Juvenile probation departments in Texas have recognized these harms and have prohibited the use Tasers and pepper spray in their facilities.

The Texas legislature should ban the use of Tasers and pepper spray in situations that do not involve a weapon in Texas public schools.

5. ESTABLISH APPROPRIATE COUNSELOR-TO-POLICE RATIOS IN SCHOOLS

Research points to the efficacy of using prevention and intervention measures to encourage positive student behavior and address trauma and student needs.  School counselors and other mental health professionals like social workers and psychologists are great resources for students, and are often able to identify and address underlying causes of student behaviors, without relying on school police or court intervention. The average student-to-counselor ratio in Texas is 470:1. The American Counseling Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1. High schools that maintain one school counselor for every 250 students have shown lower disciplinary incidents, as well as better graduation and school attendance rates.

The Texas legislature should encourage investment in high-quality counselors and other mental health professionals in schools by establishing a minimum 4:1 ratio of school-based counselors and other mental health professionals to school-based law enforcement officers. This ratio would not create additional costs for districts, but would simply allow districts to shift funds so that they are used to address and prevent behavioral problems with meaningful services, rather than simply punish them after they occur.

6. ELIMINATE THE OFFENSE OF DISORDERLY CONDUCT

In 2013, the Texas legislature eliminated the Class C offenses of Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation.  Just by ending ticketing for these two offenses, the issuing of citations decreased by over 50% statewide.  Our data show, however, that the proportion of Disorderly Conduct complaints filed actually increased for some students following the Disruption of Class and Transportation bans, suggesting that Disorderly Conduct has replaced Disruption of Class and Transportation as a general catch-all offense.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a Statement of Interest in Kenny v. Wilson, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. In the suit, the Plaintiffs—a proposed class of students and a youth organization—challenge South Carolina’s “Disturbing Schools” and “Disorderly Conduct” statutes. The Department asserts that the racial disparities in the enforcement of criminal statutes, like Disorderly Conduct, “may indicate that [they are] unconstitutionally vague,” in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process protections.  

The Texas legislature should eliminate the ability of districts to file complaints against students on their home campuses for the offense of Disorderly Conduct.

7.  RAISE THE AGE OF JUVENILE COURT JURISDICTION

Currently, all youth age 17 and older in the state of Texas are considered adults in the eyes of the criminal justice system. With the exception of some youth on juvenile probation, 17-year-old students who are arrested at school are taken to the county jail. Even though these students are juniors and seniors in high school, they do not receive the protections of the juvenile system, their parents do not have to be notified of their arrest, and their record for school misbehavior will follow them throughout their life as a criminal record.  

The Texas legislature should raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 17 year olds are treated the same as other youth.

8. KEEP 10- to 12-YEAR-OLD YOUTH OUT OF THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Only 11% of all youth who are referred to juvenile probation are 10-12 years old.  However, at least 46% of those 10- to 12-year-olds are referred to probation because of school-related behaviors. Referrals to probation increase the likelihood that youth will be involved in the justice system later in life.  These young kids would be more appropriately served through Community Resource Groups, local Systems of Care, and other services providers. Schools that cannot provide appropriate interventions and behavioral supports to these young students can refer them to the same service providers juvenile probation refers youth to, and can also get youth the supports they need through local Community Resource Groups, a local System of Care, and prevention and early intervention providers.

The Texas legislature should raise the lower age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 10- to 12-year-olds are kept out of the juvenile justice system and instead get intervention and services in more age-appropriate settings.  

9. REQUIRE DISTRICTS TO ADDRESS SCHOOL CLIMATE IN PLANNING EFFORTS

Schools with positive school climates experience fewer disciplinary problems, a greater sense of safety on campus, and improved student performance. Beginning in 2017, the Texas Education Agency will be required to include measures of school quality, climate, and safety in its plans to support Title I schools as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind.

Texas should require districts to include measures of school climate as a performance measure in District Improvement Plans, along with strategies to promote safe and supportive school climates, including trauma-informed practices and positive behavior management strategies.

TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY

1. CONTINUE TO FUND TRAINING FOR RESEARCH-BASED PRACTICES

Research-based practices, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and the Restorative Practices model encourage positive student behavior and reduce the need for classroom exclusions, police contact, and court intervention.

The Texas Education Agency should utilize the expertise within the state’s institutes of higher education and other entities to promote safe and supportive school climates by developing partnerships between these groups and Regional Education Service Centers (ESCs). Through these partnerships, all school districts in Texas can have access to research-based strategies shown to promote school success and reduce reliance on harmful and overly-punitive discipline measures.

Further, the Texas Education Agency should leverage funding made available through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to promote safe and supportive learning environments for all students. School districts can now use professional development (Title II) funds to train school personnel on strategies such as making referrals for students with or at-risk of trauma or mental illness, forming partnerships with community mental health providers, and addressing issues related to school learning conditions. ESSA also establishes a new grant program schools can use to fund efforts like promoting supportive school climates and supportive school discipline, providing school-based mental health services, dropout prevention, bullying prevention, and establishing community partnerships and parent involvement.

2. PROVIDE SCHOOL DISTRICTS WITH GUIDANCE ON IMPLEMENTING EFFECTIVE PRACTICES

Often, educators and administrators ask where they can find resources for their students or how they can access training related to research-based programs to address student behavior.

The Texas Education Agency should should identify and disseminate information on resources districts can use to promote safe and supportive school climates. TEA and the Department of State Health Services are already required to jointly maintain a list of recommended best practice-based programs related to mental health promotion, prevention, and intervention for schools to reference. This list should be expanded to include best practices related to creating positive school climates, including resources that address student needs (such as mental health services and trauma-informed practices) and staff training needs (such as implementing research-based practices shown to reduce classroom removals and school police contact).

TEXAS JUVENILE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

1. IMPROVE DATA COLLECTION & TRACKING FOR REFERRALS OF SCHOOL-BASED OFFENSES

Currently, the data reporting system that juvenile probation departments use to track referrals of youth does not require that information be included in the school-related location data field. As a result, it is likely that a number of probation departments under-report the number of referrals for school-based offenses. The reporting system also has a field that allows probation departments to identify who made a referral, including law enforcement or a school official. However, it is understood that this data is inconsistent as some enter the data based on location while others may use the data field to track whether the youth came in by an arrest from law enforcement or referral from a school official. When school police are tracked as law enforcement, it is unclear whether it was school-based law enforcement or law enforcement outside of school that made the arrest. It is impossible to understand the scope of the problem of school-based juvenile probation arrests and referrals without standardized data collection.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department should standardize data collection and reporting for school-related location and referral sources so that it is clear how many youth are referred to juvenile probation for school-related offenses and whether the referral is from law enforcement or school officials.

SCHOOL DISTRICTS

1. REDUCE STUDENT-POLICE CONTACT BY DECREASING RELIANCE ON SCHOOL POLICE OFFICERS TO ADDRESS MINOR BEHAVIORS

School-based police officers are too involved in addressing student behavior that should be handled by educators, counselors, and school administrators. Officers should not be patrolling hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. Rather, they should be called from their offices when there are incidents that actually impact school safety. If contact between officers and students is reduced in this way, there will be fewer incidents that inappropriately result in arrests, citations, and uses of force against students.

Texas school districts should reduce student-police contact by requiring that officers be stationed in their offices until they are called to address actual threats to school safety.

2. ENCOURAGE SCHOOLS TO ADOPT RESEARCH-BASED ALTERNATIVES

School districts across the country have started to adopt research-based alternatives to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, police, and courts (See Best Practices Section). These methods, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices, encourage positive student behavior and safe school climates.  Investment in these methods will provide long-term benefits for schools and will reduce reliance on harmful, overly-punitive practices.  The Texas Education Agency already provides resources for the implementation of Restorative Practices, PBIS, and Social and Emotional Learning.

Texas school districts should equip educators and administrators with the tools and resources they need to implement research-based methods to address student behavior, improve class management, and create positive school climates.  Funds for these tools and resources can be shifted from security budgets and can be obtained through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

3. REVISE MEMORANDA OF UNDERSTANDING AND DISTRICT POLICIES THAT ADDRESS THE DUTIES OF SCHOOL-BASED LAW ENFORCEMENT

Often the expectations and duties of police officers in schools are not clear to administrators, teachers, and even officers themselves. School-based police officers should only be involved in situations that threaten the safety of students and staff. They should not be called to address minor misbehaviors that would be more appropriately handled by a teacher or administrator in the school setting.

Texas school districts should revise memoranda of understanding that exist between the district and the local law enforcement agency and any other documents that address the duties of police officers within the school district to explicitly limit the involvement of police officers to situations that clearly threaten school safety.

4. CREATE SCHOOL POLICE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEES

Students, parents, and educators have the right to be involved in the hiring and oversight of school police officers.  

Texas school districts should create oversight committees that have the power to review applications for officers who want to work in the school district, conduct officer evaluations, investigate complaints, and review data.  These committees should be comprised of students, parents, educators, and community-based advocates.

5. PROVIDE TRAINING TO EDUCATORS, ADMINISTRATORS, STAFF, AND OFFICERS TO ELIMINATE BIAS

In order to address the biases that inform their actions, educators, administrators, staff, and school police officers should be trained to recognize biases and should learn skills to limit the impact that those biases have on their interactions with students.

Texas school districts should provide training in de-biasing techniques to everyone in the district who interacts with students.

6. HIRE STAFF THAT IS TRAINED TO PROMOTE A POSITIVE SCHOOL CLIMATE

Counselors and other staff members who are trained in research-based methods to addressing student behavior and promoting positive, safe school climates can be effective in understanding student and family needs and connecting them with services when appropriate.  There are a number of recommended staff positions, including community intervention workers, restorative justice coordinators, and community school resource coordinators that can meet this role.

Texas school districts should hire staff members that promote a positive school climate in order to reduce reliance on law enforcement officers who are not equipped to address student needs.

Report Team

Report Team:

Deborah Fowler, Executive Director, Texas Appleseed            

Morgan Craven, Director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, Texas Appleseed  

Yamanda Wright, Ph.D., Director of Research, Texas Appleseed

Lauren Rose, Director of Youth Justice Policy, Texans Care for Children

Kelli Johnson, Communications Director, Texas Appleseed

 
 

Report published December 2016.

Thank Yous

We are appreciative of the hard work of the Texas Appleseed staff, volunteers and interns, including Director of the Criminal Justice Project Mary Mergler, Community Outreach Coordinator Rocio Villalobos, Development Associate Jamie Tegeler-Sauer, Staff Attorney Brett Merfish, David Infortunio (Open Austin), and interns Kara Mitchell, Emily Eby, Eva Sikes, Kiah Debolt, Carlos Castaneda, and Yasmine Smith.

Thank you to the staff at Texans Care for Children who contributed to this report, including CEO Stephanie Rubin, Director of Mental Health Policy Josette Saxton, and Communications Director Peter Clark.

Thank you to the many other advocates who have contributed to this report and who work tirelessly in pursuit of just and equitable outcomes for children, including Jennifer Carreon, Matt Simpson (the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas), Dustin Rynders (Disability Rights Texas), Meredith Parekh (Disability Rights Texas), Shiloh Carter (Disability Rights Texas), Dr. Courtney Robinson (The Excellence and Advancement Foundation), Ranjana Natarajan (University of Texas School of Law), Monique Dixon (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.), Elizabeth Olsson (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.), Elizabeth Henneke (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition), Jay Jenkins (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition), Margaret Clifford (University of Texas School of Law), Pamela Foster Davis, Kathryn Newell (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid), Tovah Pentalovich (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid), and the many other individuals and organizations that have produced materials that were used in this report.

We are most grateful to the many students and families who shared their stories with us and took time to fill out surveys and provide interviews.  We thank the many people who have helped to collect those stories, surveys, and interviews, including the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Michael Turner (Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Kaci Singer (Texas Juvenile Justice Department), Niccole Lewis, Educators in Solidarity, and Paige Duggins and the student volunteers from the University of Texas School of Law.

Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project is generously supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies, Houston Endowment, The Simmons Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Harold Simmons Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Appendix A: Methodology

School Citations, Arrests, and Use of Force Section Methodology:

Data Collection

Beginning in May 2015, Texas Appleseed requested data from every school district in Texas with an internal police department as well as several municipal police departments and municipal courts tracking School Resource Officer activity within their jurisdictions. Our initial contact list covered hundreds of state and local agencies, including all 202 school district police departments across Texas.

Texas Appleseed requested and obtained data primarily through Open Records Requests pursuant to the Texas Public Information Act. Our letters requested spreadsheets showing the total number of tickets, complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents from academic year 2011-12 through academic year 2014-15, disaggregated by location and offense type. Wherever possible, we also asked that agencies break figures down by key demographic characteristics previously linked to disproportionalities in student outcomes, including:

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Age or grade level
  • Special education status
  • Level of economic disadvantage (e.g., eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch)

In addition, we requested contextual data regarding School Resource Officer programs in each district, including:

  • A police roster showing the badge numbers, races/ethnicities, genders, and hire dates of all SROs assigned to a district
  • Yearly budget allocations for SRO programs
  • Copies of any Memoranda of Understanding between school districts and municipal police departments.

Most of the agencies that sent data were able to provide the information free of cost. However, wherever necessary and within reason, Texas Appleseed paid for modest processing expenses such as hourly staff time, photocopying fees, and shipping. We unfortunately had to cancel a small number of requests due to high costs. For example, one school district in east Texas initially estimated $15,380 in expenses for providing aggregate ticketing, arrest, and use of force figures, citing outdated software as the driving expense. Many other districts sent estimates exceeding $1,000, engaged the Texas Attorney General’s office for clarification regarding their obligation to provide data, or simply did not respond to our letters.

Despite these obstacles, Texas Appleseed ultimately obtained useful data from 72 school districts and 7 municipal police departments.

Data Inventory

As in Texas Appleseed’s previous reports on this topic, complete, searchable, and fully disaggregated data were rare. Of the 202 school districts we contacted with request letters, for example, 72 school districts (36%) were able to provide aggregate totals, and only about fourth were able to provide data disaggregated by one or more demographic characteristics. Almost no districts offered data fully disaggregated by offense type, race, gender, age, and special education status.

Still, our study sample provides a broad and detailed look at recent disciplinary actions by SROs across the state. The following 72 school districts responded to our open records requests with useful data:

Note: *Four school districts reported 0 disciplinary actions by SROs from 2011 to 2015 (shown above): Dumas ISD, Galena Park ISD, Rivercrest ISD, and West Rusk County ISD. Seven school districts provided budget data only (not shown above): Diboll ISD, Highland Park ISD, Huntington ISD, Kemp ISD, La Joya ISD, Paris ISD, and Pasadena ISD. 
Note: *Four school districts reported 0 disciplinary actions by SROs from 2011 to 2015 (shown above): Dumas ISD, Galena Park ISD, Rivercrest ISD, and West Rusk County ISD. Seven school districts provided budget data only (not shown above): Diboll ISD, Highland Park ISD, Huntington ISD, Kemp ISD, La Joya ISD, Paris ISD, and Pasadena ISD. 

The following 7 municipal police departments provided useful data regarding their SROs contracted to local school districts through Memoranda of Understanding:

Note: None of the municipal police departments that provided data were able to report expenditures related exclusively to SRO programs. “NA” inserted wherever police departments were not able to provide data.
Note: None of the municipal police departments that provided data were able to report expenditures related exclusively to SRO programs. “NA” inserted wherever police departments were not able to provide data.

Processing the Data

As with data collection for Texas Appleseed’s previous reports on SRO activity, we obtained 2011-2015 SRO data in varying levels of completion from simple aggregate figures for tickets, arrests, and use of force to detailed reports per case. Typically, districts were at least able to provide the total number of tickets, complaints, and arrests by offense type, race, and gender. Very few districts (n=19) kept use of force data or were able to break totals down by demographic characteristics, and only two districts compiled case-level information regarding students’ socioeconomic status.

After compiling as many data files as we could, we narrowed our analyses to only those districts and municipal police departments with useful information. Generally, data were only excluded from our analyses if they were provided in an illegible or unsearchable format or if their format precluded merging with other districts’ data. Examples of commonly excluded data are handwritten notes, printed spreadsheets spanning greater than 50 letter-sized pages, or data missing key fields for analysis such as action type (i.e., ticket, arrest, or use of force) or academic year.

We then standardized the data across agencies, formatting demographic fields such as race/ethnicity and gender uniformly across files and re-coding offenses according to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles’ comprehensive criminal offense code table.

All data processing and analyses were performed in R, Tabula, and Microsoft Excel.

School-based Referrals to Juvenile Probation Section Methodology:

Through an Open Records Request submitted to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Texans Care for Children received data on referrals and arrests of youth to juvenile probation based on the “school-related location” of a youth’s offense for calendar year 2015. The data we reviewed included a breakdown of offenses that were at (1) a school-related location, including on campus at a school-related event, or (2) not a school-related location. At the state level we analyzed all referrals to juvenile probation in calendar year 2015 with data broken down by race as well as by age. We also reviewed data regarding the 20 largest counties for calendar year 2015; this data was broken down by race, but not by age.

We opted to analyze data for one calendar year. The time period covers half of the end of one school year, the summer months when most students are not in school and the beginning half of a new school year and provides a clear picture of the connection between school and the juvenile justice system.

Most often, youth enter the juvenile justice system after being arrested by law enforcement, but they can also be referred directly to a juvenile probation department by schools, justice and municipal courts, and other community entities. When youth are arrested or referred to county-run juvenile probation departments, records are created and data can be tracked about each youth.

The data collection systems used by probation departments have a field titled “School Related Location.” The field has two possible selections “OCAM – On Campus” and “OTHR – School Related Activity –On/Off Campus.”  On campus locations include classrooms, lunchrooms, parking lots, adjacent football fields, etc. School-related activities can include sporting events, dances, fundraisers, academic competitions, field trips, etc. Our analysis refers to offenses identified as having occurred on campus or at a school-related event as “school-related”.

If the person entering the data into a youth’s file does not select OCAM or OTHR, the field is “blank filled” and the offense location is considered to be not school-related. The school-related location data field is not required to be completed when creating a record, so it is possible and likely that some referrals and arrests of youth for behavior on campus are not captured as school-related, though it is unclear how many are not captured. For example, although most referrals for “Expulsion from Alternative Education” are labeled as occurring at a school-related location, there are still a number identified as not school-related. Our analysis keeps them as they were entered at the county level, however it is likely the “Expulsion from Alternative Education” should be classified as school-related. The numbers of arrests and referrals to juvenile probation for school-related offenses could be much higher and the data presented should be considered a minimum number of arrests and referrals for behavior occurring at school or at a school-related activity.

A single referral can reflect an offense that occurred in more than one location. It is also possible for a youth to be referred to juvenile probation more than one time in a given year. The data we are using are based on individual referrals of youth to probation; the school-based location was determined based on the most severe primary alleged offense per each referral. If a youth was referred to juvenile probation more than once in the calendar year, each referral is included in the data set. While youth can be referred to a juvenile probation department between the ages of 10 and 16, the data do include a few referrals for youth age 17. This can occur when the schools, police, or probation departments referring the youth know that he or she is already on probation and that juvenile probation therefore has continued jurisdiction. We included the general population of 17-year-olds in our analysis of rates of referral and arrest because a small number of 17-year-olds are included in the data. As a result, the rates we calculated are slightly lower than they otherwise would be.

In order to protect the identity of youth involved in the justice system, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) only provides aggregate data. When data represent less than 5 youth, TJJD data shows “<5.”  For purposes of this analysis, when data we received from TJJD showed less than 5 youth and we could not determine an exact number, we opted to identify the data point as 1 youth. Most school-related arrests and referrals are on campus, so most data points originally showing <5 were for uncommon offenses and data specifically related to school-related events.

Dangerous Discipline: Executive Summary

Executive Summary

 
 

Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children work to address the policies and practices that push Texas youth out of school, increasing the likelihood of grade retention, dropout, and a number of other negative consequences. These policies, practices, and consequences are part of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a process through which harmful classroom removals, school police, and the justice system are used to address student behavior.

The data collected and presented in this report show that Texas school districts continue to rely on police officers, juvenile probation, and courts to address low-level, school-based behaviors, despite an ever-growing body of research showing the many ways these methods harm youth.  Youth of color and youth with disabilities are over-represented in school-based arrests, court referrals, use of force incidents, and referrals to juvenile probation, further demonstrating the need to address the system of overly-punitive discipline that is pervasive in Texas schools.

In the past five years, a number of new laws have impacted the school-to-prison pipeline.  In 2013, the Texas legislature eliminated two Class C misdemeanor offenses, Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation, for students at school. Further, the legislature prohibited police officers from writing tickets to youth on their home campuses, instead requiring that a more formal complaint process be followed in order to charge students with Class C misdemeanor offenses. In 2015, the legislature eliminated the criminal offense of Failure to Attend School and required that school police officers in districts with more than 30,000 students undergo youth-focused training.

These changes in the law have certainly reduced the number of tickets/complaints that are issued to Texas students and have provided some protections to the many students who attend schools where police officers patrol halls and classrooms. Still, the problems inherent in school policing and court interventions persist, highlighting the need for additional reform. Parents, students, educators, advocates, and lawmakers must continue to be vigilant and pass laws, address policies, and end practices that harm children.

The following report contextualizes the use of police and court interventions in schools within the larger world of criminal justice practices and reforms, highlights the improvements and enduring dangers of an overly-punitive school discipline system, and provides analysis from extensive data collection and research into the arrests, court referrals, use of force incidents, school climate, and juvenile probation referrals directly from schools that impact Texas students.

Major Findings

Research and data collected and analyzed by Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children show:

  • Overall, school-based tickets, complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents dropped dramatically following historic shifts in the state’s treatment of non-violent classroom misbehavior in 2013, but have since largely plateaued.
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets, complaints, and arrests among the school districts in our sample. For consistency, school districts with missing data for one or more academic years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets, complaints, and arrests among the school districts in our sample. For consistency, school districts with missing data for one or more academic years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=53).
  • Statewide, 59,054 non-traffic Class C misdemeanor cases were filed against juveniles in 2015-16.
  • Of the 59,637 arrests and referrals of youth to juvenile probation in calendar year 2015, at least 16,814, or 28%, resulted from behavior that occurred on campus or at a school-related event. That’s 5.3 arrests and referrals per 1,000 youth statewide.

Complaints Continue to be Issued in Schools, Usually for Low-Level Infractions:

  • Between 2011 and 2015, the districts in the data set issued 41,304 tickets and complaints to students in schools.
  • The vast majority of tickets and complaints issued by school police officers were for relatively low-level offenses, but carry high costs for students.
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets and complaints among the districts in our sample. For consistency, school districts without citation data for one or more years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=41).
Note: The chart above illustrates the overall pattern in tickets and complaints among the districts in our sample. For consistency, school districts without citation data for one or more years were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=41).
  • The proportion of citations issued for Disorderly Conduct recently increased from 18% of school-based complaints in 2013-14 to 29% of school-based complaints in 2014-15. If left unchecked, school police could rely on Disorderly Conduct charges to effectively replace Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation—two school-based offenses prohibited by the legislature in 2013.

Most School-based Arrests are for Low-level Infractions:

  • Between 2011 and 2015, students in the districts in the data set were arrested 29,136 times.
  • About half of the arrests made by school police officers were for Class C misdemeanors, which are relatively low-level offenses, but which carry high costs for students.
Note: Since Class C misdemeanor offenses for juveniles are heard in adult courts, there is not usually a place for students who are younger than 17 years old to be arrested and detained. Thus, we expect that any Class C misdemeanor arrests in the data set are for students age 17 and older. School districts without offense type data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=36). 
Note: Since Class C misdemeanor offenses for juveniles are heard in adult courts, there is not usually a place for students who are younger than 17 years old to be arrested and detained. Thus, we expect that any Class C misdemeanor arrests in the data set are for students age 17 and older. School districts without offense type data were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=36). 

Top 10 Highest Arrest Averages, All Offense Levels (2011-2015)

Note: Overall, the districts above experienced a 54% decrease in arrests from 2011-12 to 2014-15. Several large districts with high SRO activity are not included on this list due to insufficient reporting. For instance, Houston ISD has not been able to produce even aggregate arrest data since Texas Appleseed first began researching this issue in 2006-07. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).
Note: Overall, the districts above experienced a 54% decrease in arrests from 2011-12 to 2014-15. Several large districts with high SRO activity are not included on this list due to insufficient reporting. For instance, Houston ISD has not been able to produce even aggregate arrest data since Texas Appleseed first began researching this issue in 2006-07. “NA” inserted wherever districts could not provide data. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=56).

Despite Poor Data Collection, it is Clear that Districts of All Sizes Continue to Use Force Against Students:

  • Use of force data were less available than ticketing, complaint, and arrest data, and record-keeping for this type of incident was inconsistent, even within districts.
  • Based on available data, Ector County ISD, Aransas County ISD, and East Central ISD had the highest rates of use of force over the past four years.

Use of Force Incidents by District (2011-2015)

Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=19).
Note: Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=19).

Schools and School Police are Over-reliant on Juvenile Probation to Address School Behavior:

  • The most common offenses that lead youth to juvenile probation directly from school are misdemeanor drug offenses (e.g., possession of marijuana), misdemeanor assault (e.g., school yard fights), and “other misdemeanors,” which includes offenses like disruptive behavior at school (disrupting lawful assembly at school), harassment, and disorderly conduct with three priors, among others. These three offense categories alone make up more than half of all referrals to juvenile probation from schools.
  • School districts in some counties refer youth to juvenile probation at rates that are much higher than the state average. Youth in three counties—Webb, Lubbock, and Brazos—were referred to juvenile probation for school-based behavior at a rate three times the statewide rate.

Youth of Color are Over-represented in Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, Juvenile Probation Referrals, and Use of Force Incidents:

  • While Black and Latino students are not more likely to misbehave than their White peers, Black youth, and to a lesser degree Latino youth, are much more likely to have their behavior addressed by school police officers than their White peers.
  • Black students received 32% of tickets and complaints, 22% of arrests, and 40% of use of force incidents from 2011-2015, though they comprise only 13% of total student enrollment in Texas.
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=26).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=31).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=31).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=16).
Note: School districts without race/ethnicity data were excluded from this analysis. Individual students who were not identified by race are not shown. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=16).
  • In many of the sampled districts with the highest rates of tickets and complaints, Black students received two to four times as many disciplinary actions as their representation in the student body from 2011 to 2015. In Austin ISD, for example, 20% of tickets and complaints went to Black students, who make up just 8% of the district’s students overall. In Dallas ISD 49% of tickets and complaints went to Black students, who make up about 23% of Dallas ISD’s student population.
  • Of all youth who were referred to juvenile probation from schools in 2015, 25% were Black, 53% were Latino, 21% were White and 1% were classified as “Other.” Statewide population data show that, among youth ages 10 to 17, 14% are Black, 46% are Latino, 34% are White, and 6% are classified as “Other.”
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
  • Statewide, Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for school-related offenses at a rate 2.86 times higher than their White peers. Statewide, Latino youth are referred to juvenile probation at a rate 1.87 times higher than their White peers.
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Black youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County and Cameron County are are not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of Black youth in either county in 2015, and no White youth were referred from Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores higher than one indicate more Black youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County and Cameron County are are not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of Black youth in either county in 2015, and no White youth were referred from Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores greater than one indicate more Latino youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County is not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of White youth in Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]
In the graph above, each score can be interpreted as a ratio between the two groups’ probation referral rates. Disparity scores greater than one indicate more Latino youth referred to probation for school-based offenses than White youth. A disparity score of one means there was no disparity between the two groups. [Note: Webb County is not included in this graph, because there were no school-based referrals of White youth in Webb County in 2015. Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.]

Students with Disabilities are Over-represented in Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, and Use of Force Incidents in Schools:

  • Only 14 school districts in our sample could provide data disaggregated by special education status, but the data we did receive show that students with disabilities were over-represented in tickets/complaints, arrests, and use of force incidents. Notably, youth with disabilities experienced more than twice as many arrests as their representation in the student body: 24% of arrests versus 9% of student enrollment.
Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).
Note: School districts without data regarding special education status were excluded from this analysis. Data obtained through Open Records Requests to school districts (n=14).

Even Very Young Students are Policed and Referred to Courts and Probation:

  • Elementary school students have received an increasing percentage of complaints/tickets, arrests, and use of force incidents over the four years for which data were collected. Middle school students have received as much as 36% of complaints/tickets, 33% of arrests, and 45% of use of force incidents—more than high schoolers in the data set.
  • Since 2012, school districts have charged 10- and 11-year-olds with Class C misdemeanors 30 times, in clear violation of the 2011 law that prohibited these charges for students so young.
  • Dallas ISD reported two use of force incidents by police against six-year-old students.
  • Younger students who are referred to juvenile probation are even more likely to be referred for school-based behavior than older youth. In 2015, at least 46% of referrals to juvenile probation for 10- to 12-year-olds came from schools.
  • While schools referred Latino and White 10-year-olds to probation at roughly the same rate, 11-, 12- and 13-year-old Latino youth were referred to probation at nearly double the rate of White youth.
  • Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for school-based behavior at a rate of 2.5 to 3.5 times the rate of White youth in all age groups. In fact, statewide, 12-year-old Black youth were referred to juvenile probation for school-based offenses at the same rate as 15- and 16-year-old White youth.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
Note: Data obtained through an Open Records Request to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Boys are Over-represented in Tickets/Complaints, Arrests, and Use of Force Incidents in Schools:

  • Boys received approximately 74% of disciplinary actions in the data set, though they only represent approximately 51% of total student enrollment.

Students in Juvenile Facilities Report Previous, Negative Interactions with School Police:  

  • Out of 425 currently-incarcerated youth who were surveyed, 64% reported being repeatedly stopped or questioned by school police before entering a Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facility, beginning between ages 12 and 13 on average.
  • 66% of youth surveyed had been ticketed or sent to court by a school police officer or school official at least once before entering a TJJD facility, and 35% of youth surveyed had been arrested by a school police officer before entering a TJJD facility.
  • Most youth in the study reported seeing or interacting with police at school nearly every day (the mean response was 4 out of 5 days per week). However, rather than make students feel safer, survey participants reported overwhelmingly negative interactions with school police officers not just personally but also in their observations of officers’ interactions with their peers.

TJJD Youths’ Recent Firsthand Experiences with School Police Officers (2015)

Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about school police officers.
Note: Items are ordered from most frequently endorsed to least frequently endorsed, not in the order they appeared in the survey. In the actual survey, positive items were presented first to avoid priming students to think negatively about school police officers.
  • Youth reported rather unwelcoming and unsupportive school climates before entering TJJD facilities. After having mostly negative experiences with school police officers in the past, presently incarcerated youth hold largely negative attitudes toward police officers and are not particularly hopeful that they will make schools safe.

School Police Programs are Costly:

  • Public school districts with internal police departments spend about $75 per student enrolled on school police programs each year, a figure that has been increasing steadily over the past four years despite research showing the harms of current school policing practices and decreasing crime rates statewide.
  • Overall, Texans paid $79 million for school police programs across our relatively small sample of 53 school districts with financial data (out of 1,247 total districts in 2014-15). This means that, on average, each of the 53 school districts from the sample spent over $1.4 million on school police officer programs. This expenditure far exceeds the average amount spent on counselor salaries in each of Texas’ 1,247 school districts: approximately $534,000 per district.

Policy Recommendations

Based on the findings in this report, Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children recommend the following policy changes:

TEXAS LEGISLATURE

1. ELIMINATE THE CRIMINAL COMPONENTS OF CLASS C MISDEMEANORS FOR JUVENILES

The data in this report clearly show that students in Texas schools are still being arrested and sent to court for Class C misdemeanors frequently. In 2015, the Texas legislature decriminalized truancy. Now, truancy is a civil offense, still heard in Justice and Municipal courts, but without the fines and threat of a criminal record that the criminal offense carried. The legislature recognized the harms associated with fining youth and saddling them with criminal records.

The Texas legislature should eliminate fines for juveniles convicted of Class C misdemeanors and require automatic expunction of all records related to charges for Class C offenses. Common Class C offenses include Disorderly Conduct and Curfew Violation. Class C offenses could still be heard in Justice and Municipal courts, but the most harmful consequences of being charged with a criminal offense—fines and lasting criminal records—should be eliminated.

2. EXPAND YOUTH-FOCUSED TRAINING TO POLICE IN ALL TEXAS SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Following the passage of House Bill 2684 in 2015, police officers in all school districts in Texas with more than 30,000 students are required to have at least 16 hours of youth-focused training, including training in child and adolescent psychology, research-based conflict resolution techniques, de-escalation techniques, the mental and behavioral needs of children with disabilities, and mental health crisis intervention. The hours required for this training are part of, not in addition to, the 40 hours of training that any officer in Texas is required to have in order to maintain his or her license. Unfortunately the law does not require training for officers in small- and medium-sized districts.

The Texas legislature should expand the youth-focused training requirements of HB 2684 so that they apply to officers who interact with students in all school districts in Texas.

3. IMPROVE DATA COLLECTION ON POLICE ACTIVITIES IN SCHOOLS

Currently there are no laws in Texas that require the collection and publication of data related to school-based arrests, use of force incidents, and citations/complaints. Students in Texas schools are restrained, come into contact with Tasers and pepper spray, and are sent to court, all without required disclosure to the public. It is impossible to understand the scope of the problem without mandatory, standardized data collection.

The Texas legislature should task the Texas Judicial Council with developing a system of data collection that will require school district police departments, local police departments that assign or send their officers to schools, and courts to collect and report data related to school-based arrests that send youth to both the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system, use of force incidents, and court contact.

4. ELIMINATE THE USE OF TASERS AND PEPPER SPRAY ON STUDENTS

Police officers in Texas schools are authorized to carry Tasers and pepper spray for use against students.  The use of these weapons harms students and can be dangerous and disruptive for bystanders and the general school environment. Juvenile probation departments in Texas have recognized these harms and have prohibited the use Tasers and pepper spray in their facilities.

The Texas legislature should ban the use of Tasers and pepper spray in situations that do not involve a weapon in Texas public schools.

5. ESTABLISH APPROPRIATE COUNSELOR-TO-POLICE RATIOS IN SCHOOLS

Research points to the efficacy of using prevention and intervention measures to encourage positive student behavior and address trauma and student needs.  School counselors and other mental health professionals like social workers and psychologists are great resources for students, and are often able to identify and address underlying causes of student behaviors, without relying on school police or court intervention. The average student-to-counselor ratio in Texas is 470:1. The American Counseling Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250:1. High schools that maintain one school counselor for every 250 students have shown lower disciplinary incidents, as well as better graduation and school attendance rates.

The Texas legislature should encourage investment in high-quality counselors and other mental health professionals in schools by establishing a minimum 4:1 ratio of school-based counselors and other mental health professionals to school-based law enforcement officers. This ratio would not create additional costs for districts, but would simply allow districts to shift funds so that they are used to address and prevent behavioral problems with meaningful services, rather than simply punish them after they occur.

6. ELIMINATE THE OFFENSE OF DISORDERLY CONDUCT

In 2013, the Texas legislature eliminated the Class C offenses of Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation.  Just by ending ticketing for these two offenses, the issuing of citations decreased by over 50%.  Our data show, however, that the proportion of Disorderly Conduct complaints filed actually increased for some students following the Disruption of Class and Transportation bans, suggesting that Disorderly Conduct has replaced Disruption of Class and Transportation as a general catch-all offense.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a Statement of Interest in Kenny v. Wilson, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. In the suit, the Plaintiffs—a proposed class of students and a youth organization—challenge South Carolina’s “Disturbing Schools” and “Disorderly Conduct” statutes. The Department asserts that the racial disparities in the enforcement of criminal statutes, like Disorderly Conduct, “may indicate that [they are] unconstitutionally vague,” in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process protections.  

The Texas legislature should eliminate the ability of districts to file complaints against students on their home campuses for the offense of Disorderly Conduct.

7.  RAISE THE AGE OF JUVENILE COURT JURISDICTION

Currently, all youth age 17 and older in the state of Texas are considered adults in the eyes of the criminal justice system. With the exception of some youth on juvenile probation, 17-year-old students who are arrested at school are taken to the county jail. Even though these students are juniors and seniors in high school, they do not receive the protections of the juvenile system, their parents do not have to be notified of their arrest, and their record for school misbehavior will follow them throughout their life as a criminal record.  

The Texas legislature should raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 17 year olds are treated the same as other youth.

8. KEEP 10-12 YEAR OLDS OUT OF THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM

Only 11% of all youth who are referred to juvenile probation are 10-12 years old. However, at least 46% of those 10- to 12-year-olds are referred to probation because of school-related behaviors. Referrals to probation increase the likelihood that youth will be involved in the justice system later in life.  These young kids would be more appropriately served through Community Resource Groups, local Systems of Care, and other services providers. Schools that cannot provide appropriate interventions and behavioral supports to these young students can refer them to the same service providers juvenile probation refers youth to, and can also get youth the supports they need through local Community Resource Groups, a local System of Care, and prevention and early intervention providers.

The Texas legislature should raise the lower age of juvenile court jurisdiction so that 10-12 year olds are kept out of the juvenile justice system and instead get intervention and services in more age-appropriate settings.  

9. REQUIRE DISTRICTS TO ADDRESS SCHOOL CLIMATE IN PLANNING EFFORTS

Schools with positive school climates experience fewer disciplinary problems, a greater sense of safety on campus, and improved student performance. Beginning in 2017, the Texas Education Agency will be required to include measures of school quality, climate, and safety in its plans to support Title I schools as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind.

Texas should require districts to include measures of school climate as a performance measure in District Improvement Plans, along with strategies to promote safe and supportive school climates, including trauma-informed practices and positive behavior management strategies.

TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY

1. CONTINUE TO FUND TRAINING FOR RESEARCH-BASED PRACTICES

Research-based practices, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and the Restorative Practices model encourage positive student behavior and reduce the need for classroom exclusions, police contact, and court intervention.

The Texas Education Agency should utilize the expertise within the state’s institutes of higher education and other entities to promote safe and supportive school climates by developing partnerships between these groups and Regional Education Service Centers (ESCs). Through these partnerships, all school districts in Texas can have access to research-based strategies shown to promote school success and reduce reliance on harmful and overly-punitive discipline measures.

Further, the Texas Education Agency should leverage funding made available through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to promote safe and supportive learning environments for all students. School districts can now use professional development (Title II) funds to train school personnel on strategies such as making referrals for students with or at-risk of trauma or mental illness, forming partnerships with community mental health providers, and addressing issues related to school learning conditions. ESSA also establishes a new grant program schools can use to fund efforts like promoting supportive school climates and supportive school discipline, providing school-based mental health services, dropout prevention, bullying prevention, and establishing community partnerships and parent involvement.

2. PROVIDE SCHOOL DISTRICTS WITH GUIDANCE ON IMPLEMENTING EFFECTIVE PRACTICES

Often, educators and administrators ask where they can find resources for their students or how they can access training related to research-based programs to address student behavior.

The Texas Education Agency should should identify and disseminate information on resources districts can use to promote safe and supportive school climates. TEA and the Department of State Health Services are already required to jointly maintain a list of recommended best practice-based programs related to mental health promotion, prevention, and intervention for schools to reference. This list should be expanded to include best practices related to creating positive school climates, including resources that address student needs (such as mental health services and trauma-informed practices) and staff training needs (such as implementing research-based practices shown to reduce classroom removals and school police contact).

TEXAS JUVENILE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT

1. IMPROVE DATA COLLECTION & TRACKING FOR REFERRALS OF SCHOOL-BASED OFFENSES

Currently, the data reporting system that juvenile probation departments use to track referrals of youth does not require that information be included in the school-related location data field. As a result, it is likely that a number of probation departments under-report the number of referrals for school-based offenses. The reporting system also has a field that allows probation departments to identify who made a referral, including law enforcement or a school official. However, it is understood that this data is inconsistent as some enter the data based on location while others may use the data field to track whether the youth came in by an arrest from law enforcement or referral from a school official. When school police are tracked as law enforcement, it is unclear whether it was school-based law enforcement or law enforcement outside of school that made the arrest. It is impossible to understand the scope of the problem of school-based juvenile probation arrests and referrals without standardized data collection.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department should standardize data collection and reporting for school-related location and referral sources so that it is clear how many youth are referred to juvenile probation for school-related offenses and whether the referral is from law enforcement or school officials.

SCHOOL DISTRICTS

1. REDUCE STUDENT-POLICE CONTACT BY DECREASING RELIANCE ON SCHOOL POLICE OFFICERS TO ADDRESS MINOR BEHAVIORS

School-based police officers are too involved in addressing student behavior that should be handled by educators, counselors, and school administrators. Officers should not be patrolling hallways, classrooms, and cafeterias. Rather, they should be called from their offices when there are incidents that actually impact school safety. If contact between officers and students is reduced in this way, there will be fewer incidents that inappropriately result in arrests, citations, and uses of force against students.

Texas school districts should reduce student-police contact by requiring that officers be stationed in their offices until they are called to address actual threats to school safety.

2. ENCOURAGE SCHOOLS TO ADOPT RESEARCH-BASED ALTERNATIVES

School districts across the country have started to adopt research-based alternatives to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline, police, and courts (See Best Practices Section). These methods, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Restorative Practices encourage positive student behavior and safe school climates. Investment in these methods will provide long-term benefits for schools and will reduce reliance on harmful, overly-punitive practices. The Texas Education Agency already provides resources for the implementation of Restorative Practices, PBIS, and Social and Emotional Learning.

Texas school districts should equip educators and administrators with the tools and resources they need to implement research-based methods to address student behavior, improve class management, and create positive school climates. Funds for these tools and resources can be shifted from security budgets and can be obtained through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

3. REVISE MEMORANDA OF UNDERSTANDING AND DISTRICT POLICIES THAT ADDRESS THE DUTIES OF SCHOOL-BASED LAW ENFORCEMENT

Often the expectations and duties of police officers in schools are not clear to administrators, teachers, and even officers themselves.  School-based police officers should only be involved in situations that threaten the safety of students and staff. They should not be called to address minor misbehaviors that would be more appropriately handled by a teacher or administrator in the school setting.

Texas school districts should revise memoranda of understanding that exist between the district and the local law enforcement agency and any other documents that address the duties of police officers within the school district to explicitly limit the involvement of police officers to situations that clearly threaten school safety.

4. CREATE SCHOOL POLICE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEES

Students, parents, and educators have the right to be involved in the hiring and oversight of school police officers.  

Texas school districts should create oversight committees that have the power to review applications for officers who want to work in the school district, conduct officer evaluations, investigate complaints, and review data.  These committees should be comprised of students, parents, educators, and community-based advocates.

5. PROVIDE TRAINING TO EDUCATORS, ADMINISTRATORS, STAFF, AND OFFICERS TO ELIMINATE BIAS

In order to address the biases that may inform their actions, educators, administrators, staff, and school police officers should be trained to recognize biases and should learn skills to limit the impact that those biases have on their interactions with students.

Texas school districts should provide training in de-biasing techniques to everyone in the district who interacts with students.

6. HIRE STAFF THAT IS TRAINED TO PROMOTE A POSITIVE SCHOOL CLIMATE

Counselors and other staff members who are trained in research-based methods to addressing student behavior and promoting positive, safe school climates can be effective in understanding student and family needs and connecting them with services when appropriate.  There are a number of recommended staff positions, including community intervention workers, restorative justice coordinators, and community school resource coordinators that can meet this role.

Texas school districts should hire staff members that promote a positive school climate in order to reduce reliance on law enforcement officers who are not equipped to address student needs.

Report Team

Report Team:

Deborah Fowler, Executive Director, Texas Appleseed            

Morgan Craven, Director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, Texas Appleseed  

Yamanda Wright, Ph.D., Director of Research, Texas Appleseed

Lauren Rose, Director of Youth Justice Policy, Texans Care for Children

Kelli Johnson, Communications Director, Texas Appleseed

 
 

Report published December 2016.

Thank Yous

We are appreciative of the hard work of the Texas Appleseed staff, volunteers and interns, including Director of the Criminal Justice Project Mary Mergler, Community Outreach Coordinator Rocio Villalobos, Development Associate Jamie Tegeler-Sauer, Staff Attorney Brett Merfish, David Infortunio (Open Austin), and interns Kara Mitchell, Emily Eby, Eva Sikes, Kiah Debolt, and Yasmine Smith.

Thank you to the staff at Texans Care for Children who contributed to this report, including CEO Stephanie Rubin, Director of Mental Health Policy Josette Saxton, and Communications Director Peter Clark.

Thank you to the many other advocates who have contributed to this report and who work tirelessly in pursuit of just and equitable outcomes for children, including Jennifer Carreon, Matt Simpson (the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas), Dustin Rynders (Disability Rights Texas), Meredith Parekh (Disability Rights Texas), Shiloh Carter (Disability Rights Texas), Dr. Courtney Robinson (The Excellence and Advancement Foundation), Ranjana Natarajan (University of Texas School of Law), Monique Dixon (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.), Elizabeth Olsson (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.), Elizabeth Henneke (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition), Jay Jenkins (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition), Margaret Clifford (University of Texas School of Law), Pamela Foster Davis, Kathryn Newell (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid), Tovah Pentalovich (Texas RioGrande Legal Aid), and the many other individuals and organizations that have produced materials that were used in this report.

We are most grateful to the many students and families who shared their stories with us and took time to fill out surveys and provide interviews.  We thank the many people who have helped to collect those stories, surveys, and interviews, including the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Michael Turner (Texas Juvenile Justice Department, Kaci Singer (Texas Juvenile Justice Department), Niccole Lewis, Educators in Solidarity, and Paige Duggins and the student volunteers from the University of Texas School of Law.

Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project is generously supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies, Houston Endowment, The Simmons Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Harold Simmons Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Suspended Childhood 

The Problem

In schools across the country, very young students are being suspended and expelled at alarming rates. Even children in preschool are being pushed out of their classrooms, usually for minor behaviors that should be addressed through school-based supports and interventions.

Unfortunately, Texas public schools are no different in the way they punish very young children. For this updated report, Texas Appleseed analyzed new data on in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and placements in disciplinary alternative education programs for Texas children in pre-kindergarten (pre-K) through 5th grade. This report also highlights recent efforts to reduce classroom removals for very young students in Texas and across the country.

In the 2015-2016 school year, Texas schools issued 63,874 out-of-school suspensions to young children:

In the 2015-2016 school year, Texas issued 144,432 in-school suspensions to young children:

These numbers are conservative. Data for some districts are masked to protect students’ identities when the total number of discipline actions is relatively low (between one and four). Though we have only analyzed the lowest numbers for this report, the number of out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through 5th-graders could be as high as 133,315. The number of in-school suspensions for pre-K through 5th-graders could be as high as 249,018.

Because of these class exclusions, many Texas children are missing important classroom learning time, are being labeled early by teachers and peers as “problem students,” and are being exposed to ineffective and harmful models of problem solving and conflict resolution. Further, these punishments impact certain groups of students more than others—Black children, boys, and students with special education needs are pushed out of class at unequal rates compared to their peers.

Black students make up about 13% of the elementary school population in Texas, but they account for 47% of all pre-K through 5th grade out-of-school suspensions.

Boys represent 51% of the total student population in Texas, but they account for 84% of all pre-K through 5th grade out-of-school suspensions.

Students who receive special education services are 9% of the total student population in Texas, but they account for 21% of all pre-K through 5th grade out-of-school suspensions.

What kind of discipline can be imposed on pre-K and elementary students in Texas?

Many parents and community members are surprised to find that, in Texas, even very young students can be suspended or expelled. School administrators have almost the same range of options available for exclusionary discipline of young students that exist for older students:

  • In-School Suspensions (ISS): When students are placed in in-school suspension, they are sent to a designated classroom for an amount of time ranging from a class period to a few days. All placements in ISS are discretionary, meaning there is no law that requires educators to use ISS to punish specific behaviors. Unfortunately, there are also no requirements that students receive the same instruction in an ISS classroom that they would in their regular classrooms, which can cost students important learning time. Many times, students are sent to ISS for “offenses” that are extremely minor, like dress code violations. There is no minimum age for in­-school suspensions.
  • Out-of-School Suspensions (OSS): Even pre-K and elementary school students may be suspended out of school for up to three days. There is no limit to the number of times a student can be suspended during a school year. OSS is discretionary—the reasons for removal are outlined in each school district’s Student Code of Conduct, but these suspensions are not required by law. Students may not report to school, and there is no designated place for suspended students to go that is monitored by a teacher or district employee.

A study of nearly one million Texas public schoolchildren found that 97% of classroom removals were discretionary and were not required by law. These removals were made in response to Student Code of Conduct violations.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center, Breaking Schools’ Rules (2011)

  • Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP): A DAEP is a placement for students who are removed from their regular classrooms for more than three days for a discipline violation. Many times DAEPs are located on a separate campus, completely segregated from the general population of students. Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code mandates placement in a DAEP for certain serious offenses. While these programs are required to teach children the core curriculum (English, math, science, and history) they are often not as rigorous as mainstream programs, and children fall behind their peers during these placements. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has identified placement in a DAEP as a factor that increases students’ risk of dropping out of school. Any student over the age of six can be placed in a DAEP.
  • Expulsions: Children under 10 years old may not be expelled unless they bring a firearm to school; for all other expellable offenses, children under 10 must be sent to a DAEP.     

Why would a five-year-old student be suspended?

Data provided by the Texas Education Agency do not indicate the reason for each suspension given to young Texas students, but we know the types of “offenses” that can result in suspensions because they are listed in each school district’s Student Code of Conduct. The offenses below are examples of some of the most vague and trivial reasons for removing students from their classrooms:

Waco ISD

  • “Insubordination”
  • Violation of “dress and grooming standards”

Fort Worth ISD

  • “Being disrespectful” 
  • “Violating safety rules”

Aldine ISD:

  • “Insubordination”
  • Violation of “dress and grooming standards” 

Killeen ISD

  • “Horseplay”
  • “Inappropriate Language”

Corpus Christi ISD:

  • “Persistent misbehavior”
  • “Classroom disruption”

Alief ISD:

  • “Disobedient/disorderly”
  • “Disrespect toward others”

Dallas ISD:

  • “Classroom disruption”
  • “Offensive language”

Note: Dallas ISD adopted a new discipline policy that prohibits suspending students in pre-K through 2nd grade for the offenses listed above and limiting suspensions for other levels of offenses. This policy will go into effect at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

San Antonio ISD:

  • “Insubordination”
  • “Disrupting Classes”

Arlington ISD:

  • “Defiance”
  • “Posturing”

Houston ISD:

  • Repeated “violations of rules or procedures established by the teacher”
  • Repeated “failure to participate in classroom activities”

Note: Houston ISD adopted a new discipline policy that prohibits suspending students in pre-K through 2nd grade for the offenses listed above. The policy went into effect at the start of the 2016-17 school year.

The Impact

“Young students who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not.”  U.S. Departments of  Ed & Health and Human Services (2014) 

There are a number of negative outcomes associated with removing young children from class. This is particularly concerning given that young students may be punished for very minor behaviors that are completely age appropriate, but are categorized as offenses like “horseplay” or “persistent misbehavior.” In other instances, a child’s actions may be a symptom of other, more serious underlying issues that should be addressed with evaluations, treatment, and appropriate services.

While students certainly feel the harmful effects of exclusionary punishments immediately, it is also important to recognize the significant and lasting impacts of class exclusions on children’s academic, social, behavioral, and emotional development.

Missed Classroom Time: When children are removed from class, they lose important learning time. A student who is suspended 40 times could miss between 40 and 120 days of classroom learning time each year, out of 180 total school days. When students are not learning from their regular classroom teachers they can quickly fall behind, leaving them feeling frustrated, detached from school, and hopeless.

Creates Mistrust: When children are excluded from class, they begin to lose faith in a system that seems to punish them and their peers randomly and without regard for the underlying cause of the behavior. This mistrust can shape children’s attitudes toward school for the rest of their lives.

“Garrett, an 8-year-old 2nd-grader with autism, was sent home over 50 days in one semester due to behavioral problems. Garrett’s aunt was always called to pick him up. She eventually lost her job because she missed so many days caring for her nephew. The aunt decided to home school Garrett because he was not receiving an education from the school district, and she could not hold a job with all of his class removals.”

Houston-area attorney who represents children who are pushed out of school

Difficult for Families: School removals can cause stress for families, particularly when DAEP placements and out-of-school suspensions require parents to adjust their work schedules. This adjustment may be a particularly significant burden for working families in Texas who could find it difficult to stay at home to care for young children excluded from school.

Negative School Climates and Lower Overall Academic Achievement: The use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions does not improve student achievement or overall school climate, according to a report from the American Psychological Association. In fact, the use of these exclusions is associated with less satisfactory school climate ratings and lower school-wide academic achievement for ALL students, not just those who are excluded from their classrooms. One study that followed a state-wide suspension ban in California found that lower suspension rates are correlated with higher academic achievement for all student groups.

Ineffective “Solution”: Suspensions do not change student behavior. Rather, research-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, mindfulness, meditation, and Restorative Discipline, have been shown to improve student behavior and dramatically reduce the use of classroom removals.

Lisa, a 7-year-old student with intellectual disabilities, was sent home two to three times per week for behavioral issues. The school district never conducted the necessary behavior evaluations that should be performed for students with disabilities until Lisa’s parents found an attorney to help them.

Houston-area advocate

Costly for School Districts: When students are removed from class, school districts lose Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funds, which are given to school districts and based on the number of students who are present in class each day. As one example, Dallas ISD estimates that the district loses approximately $50,000 in ADA funds per year due to suspensions of pre-K through 2nd grade students.

Early Labeling: Students who are removed from their classrooms may feel as though they have been labeled as “bad” or “problem” children. This can be particularly devastating for young children who are in the process of developing their self-identities and forging relationships with teachers and peers. A negative label could have a significant impact on a child’s social-emotional development, teachers’ expectations for success, and treatment from peers.

Poor Modeling: Very young children are in the process of learning effective communication and conflict resolution techniques, often basing their behaviors on the models they see in school. When suspensions and expulsions are used—especially to address minor behaviors or in response to actions that actually require real interventions—young children may begin to believe, incorrectly, that punishment and exclusion are appropriate ways to solve problems. Research has shown that poor social-emotional skills development in Kindergarten is associated with undesirable outcomes in the areas of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health. Poor modeling is particularly concerning considering that children could be observing their peers of color and peers with disabilities excluded at disproportionately high rates.

Disproportionate Impact: Black children, boys, and students with disabilities are punished at disproportionately high rates. Often, these differences are most stark for very young children. In the U.S., African American students represent 18% of pre-school enrollment, but account for 42% of students suspended once and 48% of students suspended more than once.

Studies show that many educators have unconscious, or implicit, biases that impact how they assess and punish the behavior of certain groups of students, like children of color and students with disabilities. These biases can cause educators to punish some students more harshly and more frequently than others, even for the exact same behaviors.

The Data

This report provides an analysis of exclusionary discipline practices across 1,227 school districts in Texas, covering over 2 million elementary school students. All of the data for this report were provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which maintains district-level information about discipline in Texas public schools.

The following tables show the total number of actions (or incidents) for each type of exclusionary discipline, not the number of individual students who received a particular punishment. It is important to note that individual students can experience multiple actions in a school year. Both state- and district-level summary tables are presented, as well as figures showing trends by grade level, race, special education status, and gender.

Note: Children under six years old, which includes all pre-K students, may not be placed in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program, unless they bring a firearm to school, according to Texas Education Code, Section 37.006(l).
Note: Children under six years old, which includes all pre-K students, may not be placed in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program, unless they bring a firearm to school, according to Texas Education Code, Section 37.006(l).

District-level analyses provide additional insights about the prevalence and character of suspensions in elementary schools.

Not surprisingly, some districts have higher suspension rates than others. Among the ten districts with the most out-of-school suspensions in 2015-2016, Waco ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Aldine ISD, and Killeen ISD had the highest rates of out-of-school suspensions. In Waco ISD, for example, there were 17 out-of-school suspensions for every 100 elementary school students during the 2015-2016 school year.

As discussed previously, certain groups of students are disproportionately affected by exclusionary discipline practices. Overall, Black students were more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as White students during the 2015-2016 school year. This pattern was particularly apparent in grades K-2.

Although Black students make up only 13% of the elementary school-age population (pre-K through 5th grade) in Texas schools, they account for 47% of out-of-school suspensions.  

Similarly, by Kindergarten, students who are eligible for special education services receive 21% of out-of-school suspensions though they comprise only 9% of the student body.

Finally, boys are more than three times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as girls.

Note. Many of the figures presented above are conservative estimates given TEA’s policies for protecting students’ identities. TEA redacts (or masks) data points reflecting fewer than five students. For purposes of this study, we conducted analyses assuming all redacted cells were the minimum possible value (1). Thus, in many cases, true figures may be as much as 10% higher than those presented in this report.

The Solutions

School districts, educators, legislators, and families have the power to change the way young children are treated in Texas public schools.

School districts and educators should:

1. Adopt age-appropriate, research-based positive behavior systems that keep young students in their classrooms.

School districts should adopt formal policies that specify that schools must not rely on harmful exclusionary discipline practices and instead utilize research-based supports to keep young students in their classrooms, learning with their teachers and peers.

There are a number of alternatives to exclusionary discipline that have proven effective in reducing the use of classroom removals. Examples include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Restorative Discipline, mindfulness, meditation, and Social-Emotional Learning, all of which are available to educators and administrators in many Texas schools. When implemented properly, these methods give educators the tools they need to successfully manage their classrooms without relying on harmful suspensions, expulsions, or alternative education placements.

Further, school-wide implicit bias training can help staff and educators to recognize their unconscious biases so that they are aware of how they may be unintentionally viewing certain student behaviors as negative and thus imposing inappropriate punishments.

2. Encourage school-wide policies to limit disciplinary exclusions.

Educators and school administrators should make it clear to teachers and staff that the use of any type of classroom removal should be limited. The Campus Behavior Coordinator can help to design and implement alternative discipline systems.

Administrators should discourage removals that happen outside of a campus’s formal discipline system. Often, students are told to stand outside of their classrooms for some period of time or are repeatedly sent to an administrator’s office, but the removals are not recorded as suspensions. These students are feeling the harms of classroom exclusions, but schools may not be able to address their needs without proper documentation.  Schools should not allow for the creation of an informal, harmful punitive discipline system.

The Texas Legislature Should:

Limit suspensions, DAEP placements, and expulsions for young children.

Texas has the opportunity to be a national leader in the way young children are disciplined in school. During the 2017 legislative session, legislators should support bills that 1) limit suspensions, expulsions, and Disciplinary Alternative Education Program placements for Texas’ youngest children and 2) encourage school districts to implement research-based positive behavior systems, led by each school’s Campus Behavior Coordinator.

Parents and Families Should:

1. Advocate for district- and school-wide changes to discipline policies and practices.

Parents, students, and community organizations have a powerful voice. That voice can be used to push for changes at each school campus, at school board meetings, and at the legislature. At every level, leaders should be encouraged to stop excluding young children from school and instead provide the supports they need to be successful.

2. Challenge individual classroom removals.

According to the Texas Education Code, parents and students have the right to challenge suspensions, DAEP placements, and expulsions. Unfortunately, many parents and students do not take advantage of these rights. Parents should receive notice when their child is removed from class, and every student should be able to present his or her side of the story and argue that a removal is inappropriate.

Policies Across the Country

Many school districts, states, counties, and municipalities have passed or are currently exploring policies and laws that limit classroom removals for young students. Some are listed below:

AUSTIN INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

In February 2017, the Austin ISD School Board passed a policy that significantly limits the use of out-of-school suspensions for students in grade levels below 3rd grade. The District ensured supports and trainings for teachers and acknowledged the need to address racial equity issues through changes in its discipline policies.

CALIFORNIA

In 2014, AB 420 was signed into law and prohibits suspensions for “willful defiance” (dress code violations, talking back, failing to have school materials, etc) for Kindergarten through 3rd grade students. Further, willful defiance cannot be used as a cause for expulsion for any student.

Some districts within California, including Los Angeles USD, San Francisco USD, and Oakland USD, have banned willful defiance suspensions for all students.

CHICAGO

In 2015, Chicago Public Schools passed a policy that bans the suspension of pre-K through 2nd grade students, except in situations of imminent danger. Additionally, for any student who is suspended the school must develop a plan to prevent any future incidents and address any ongoing difficulties the student may have.

COLORADO

At the time of writing, HB 1210 was passed by the House and has moved to the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. The bill prohibits the use of out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through 2nd grades, except in situations that threaten the safety of students or staff. The bill also prohibits expulsions of preschool through 2nd grade students, except when required by federal law, and requires the adoption of “inclusionary discipline practices”—prevention and intervention strategies that address student needs.

CONNECTICUT

In 2015, the state Senate passed SB 1053 which prohibits out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for pre-K through 2nd graders, except for dangerous behavior and requires intervention programs to address behavioral challenges.

DALLAS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

In February 2017, Dallas ISD passed policy changes to reduce and ultimately eliminate suspensions for pre-K through 2nd graders by 2022. The District will provide trainings for teachers and staff in behavior management practices. These practices focus on restorative methods, mindfulness, and using positive behavior models to support students.

EL PASO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

In 2015, the El Paso School Board passed a Code of Conduct change to prohibit the suspension and expulsion of any student below third grade, except as required by law. For any student above third grade, the school must exhaust other positive behavior methods before a student can be suspended.

HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT

In 2016, the Houston ISD School Board passed a Code of Conduct change prohibiting discretionary out-of-school suspensions for students in grades two and below. For 3rd through 5th grades, discretionary exclusions can only be used as a last resort. Houston ISD also committed funds and staff to teacher training and behavior support teams.

LOUISIANA

In 2015, the state Senate passed SB54, banning suspensions and expulsions of elementary school students for uniform violations.

MARYLAND

At the time of writing, Maryland’s House Bill 425 passed the House and is being reviewed in the State Senate. HB 425 would prohibit public schools from suspending or expelling students in pre-K and would restrict suspensions and expulsions in grades K through 2 to circumstances in which a child knowingly brings or possesses a firearm at school.

NEW JERSEY

S2081 was signed into law by Governor Chris Christie in September 2016. S2081 bans out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for pre-K through 2nd grade students and requires schools to identify students that are at or may become at risk of needing disciplinary action.

OREGON

SB 553 passed in 2015 and prohibits out-of-school suspensions for students in 5th grade or below, except for non-accidental actions that cause (or threaten to cause) serious physical harm, as described by statute.

PHILADELPHIA

In 2016, the School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia changed the Code of Conduct to ban out-of-school suspensions for kindergartners, except for violent offenses, and eliminated classroom removals for dress code violations.

SEATTLE

House Bill 1541 was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee and went into effect in June 2016. HB 1541 prohibits long-term suspensions or expulsions for any student, requires the office of the superintendent of public instruction to provide access to trainings on alternative discipline management techniques to school districts, and requires schools to continue to provide educational services to any child who is removed from their classroom through suspensions or expulsions.

ST. LOUIS

In 2016, the St. Louis Public School District Code of Conduct was changed to prohibit suspensions for students in Kindergarten through 2nd grades, except when required by law. The District intends to focus on addressing discipline practices that result in the disproportionate punishment of students of color.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Act 21-50 went into effect in the 2015-16 school year and bans the suspension and expulsion of students in publicly funded pre-K programs. Additionally, any disciplinary action that is taken has to be recorded for data collection and analysis.

WASHINGTON STATE

At the time of writing, SB 5155 is under review in the state Senate. SB 5155 bans the suspension and expulsion of Kindergarten through 2nd grade students, except when required by law. The bill also encourages school districts to provide evidence-based supports for students, and requires districts to continue to provide education services to any student who is suspended or expelled.

Contact Us

Join the growing group of students, parents, and advocates who support limiting school exclusions for young children!

Please check out our new school-to-prison pipeline resource site, www.texasdisciplinelab.org and review our Banning Classroom Removals for Young Children Policy Guide to learn more about how you can impact your local school district’s school discipline policies.

Update Published: March 2017                                         

The Report Team: Morgan Craven, Deborah Fowler, Kelli Johnson, Ellen Stone, Yamanda Wright, Jamie Tegeler-Sauer, Donovan Calvert

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