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Uneven Discipline Yields Civil Rights Complaint Against Texas District

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A Texas school district is being accused of violating black students' civil rights because those students are cited by police four times as frequently as their peers for profane language and disrupting class. In addition, although black students make up less than a quarter of the district's students, they received more than half of police citations at school, the NAACP and the National Center for Youth Law said in a complaint filed today with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

In the complaint, the groups say the disproportionate discipline persists in the area because the 15,500-student Bryan school district hires local police officers to enforce school rules in its schools.

"In a very real sense, the Bryan school district is using law enforcement as its disciplinary arm. The school district must be held accountable for the disproportionate impact on African-American students, who are also much more likely to be suspended and expelled from Bryan schools," said Michael Harris, a senior attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.

Police in Bryan can issue tickets to students for a range of behaviors, and the tickets require students to appear in court and face fines, community service hours, and behavior-management classes. If they don't appear, students may be arrested and jailed.

Across Texas, the ticketing of students and the repercussions of these tickets have been a concern for some time. In 2010, a report by Texas Appleseed found that 275,000 tickets—not including traffic citations—are issued to juveniles in the Lone Star State each year.

In the Bryan district, recent cases in which students were ticketed, according to Texas Appleseed, include a 13-year-old middle school student overheard using profanity before class. The student was referred to the principal by a teacher, and the principal asked a school resource officer to write a ticket to the student based on the teacher's referral. And the student also was disciplined with an in-school suspension. In another case, a high school student was sent to the principal's office after she got into a verbal argument with a classmate, and the principal asked an officer to ticket the student.

The groups that filed the civil rights complaint say that these incidents illustrate the inappropriate ways the district and local police use tickets and the incorrect role for school police officers.

The complaints add to growing concern about the addition of school police officers taking place across the country following the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

"Instead of 'policing' students, school districts should adopt proven alternatives to keep misbehavior in check without treating young people like criminals," said Rachel Kleinman, an assistant counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

What will become of the civil rights complaint remains to be seen, but the Education Department's civil rights office has been particularly hard on districts over disparities in discipline policies and practices in recent years, coming down hard on the Oakland school district last year, for example.

In Bryan, the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund and the National Law Center say that the data provided by local officials make the extreme racial disparities clear.

"Even if the school district could show an educational necessity for its ticketing practices, it could still be held liable... because of the existence of alternative practices that would better serve the district's educational mission and have a less-discriminatory impact," they said. And other districts, they note, "have successfully employed available alternative disciplinary practices to reduce disciplinary referrals, improve school climate, and boost academic achievement."

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