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McKinney, Texas, School Police Treat Students Unfairly, Civil Rights Groups Say

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The school district in a Texas town that gained notoriety after a white municipal police officer tackled a 15-year-old black girl in a bikini at a pool party this summer should require additional training for its school-based police officers on working with students, a coalition of civil rights groups said Wednesday.

The police force in McKinney, Texas, came under extra scrutiny after the pool party incident, and new data show its work in the city's schools is also problematic, the groups wrote in a letter to Superintendent Rick McDaniel. Specifically, an analysis of discipline data found black students are more likely to receive criminal citations in McKinney schools than their white peers, wrote the groups, which include the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and Texas Appleseed, a state-level advocacy group.

Here's a summary of the data from a press release:

"The data, compiled by Texas Appleseed, show that from January 2012 to June 2015, African-American students in the McKinney Independent School District (ISD), who make up less than 13 percent of the student population, accounted for 39 percent of arrests made by school police, also known as 'school resource officers' (SROs), and 36 percent of misdemeanor tickets.

Most of these law enforcement interactions were for minor offenses. For example, African-American students received approximately 46 percent of tickets for "disruption of class," a vague and subjective offense that research shows leads to the disproportionate punishment of students of color.

Although issuing criminal citations to students in Texas for disruption of class has been prohibited since Sept. 1, 2013, the proportion of tickets issued to African-American students for the similarly subjective offense of 'disorderly conduct' increased from 47 percent (in January 2012 until the change in law in September 2013) to 61 percent (from September 2013 to June 2015).  Overall, ticketing of all students was down during that entire period, but the drop was driven almost entirely by white students whose citations fell from 28 percent to 15 percent."

That data covers a relatively small number of offenses compared to some large, urban districts. Over the three-year span, there were 164 instances for disorderly conduct, the most common category, according to a fact sheet distributed by the groups, which obtained the data from the police department through open-records requests. 

mckinneychart.JPGSchool police need additional training on how to work with students, the groups say.

Racially disparate arrest data combined with video of the pool party incident prove that McKinney police are not adequately trained to work with children, the groups said.

A new Texas law, known as HB2684 as it passed through the legislature, requires school districts with more than 30,000 students to require additional training of police that work in their schools. With an enrollment of 24,500 students, McKinney falls below that threshold, but the groups urged the district to voluntarily adopt the training requirements as part of its memorandum of understanding with the city police department.

"We believe that the training outlined in HB2684, which includes deescalation techniques and child development instruction, will help police officers in schools better interact with youth," the groups wrote in their letter.

Update: "In a joint statement, McKinney ISD and the McKinney Police Department said they agree in requiring supplemental training for school resource officers," the Dallas Morning News reports. "But officials said they don't believe the officers are punishing students too harshly or demonstrating racial bias. Last year, eight of the 12 officers in McKinney schools were minorities."

Disparate discipline rates are not uncommon in U.S. schools.

Educators and policymakers around the country are taking steps to drive down disparate discipline rates in schools.

While black students represented 16 percent of overall U.S. public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, they represented 33 percent of students suspended out of school, 34 percent of students who were expelled, 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools, and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

First-of-its-kind school discipline guidance released by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice in 2014 urges districts to rethink "zero tolerance" policies that lead to classroom removal for non-violent offenses. And it spells out districts' obligations under civil rights laws to review and track the impact of disciplinary policies to ensure that they aren't unfairly affecting certain student populations.

Higher rates of discipline for students in various racial and ethnic groups cannot be entirely explained away by assuming they had higher rates of misbehavior, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said when they released the discipline guidance in Baltimore. But that call to avoid "disparate impact" has been criticized by some Republican lawmakers.

Schools are also responsible for ensuring that the conduct of law enforcement officers patrolling their hallways is fair, even if those officers are not directly employed by the district, the federal guidance says.

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