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December 7, 2013

A slap on the wrist?

SB 393 changes he way school districts across the state with law enforcement officers on campus operate

Athens — Disorderly conduct, disruption of class, trespassing or being under the influence on school grounds are no longer offenses that can receive citations from Texas school districts.

Senate Bill 393 went into law Sept. 1 during the 83rd Texas Legislature changing the way school districts across the state with law enforcement officers on campus operate.

“The intent of the bill was to not overwhelm the courts. Schools the size of Athens, or mainly the large metroplex schools, were really putting the court system in a bind with the lower level misdemeanors,” Athens ISD Superintendent Blake Stiles said. “I understand the intent of it, but it has caused us to adjust some what. For the most part, we have handled the lower level problems in house any way. There have been a few situations where we haven’t been able to issue citations where we would have in the past, but not a great deal.”

Stiles said there has not been a great deal of change for Athens, but he prefers last year’s system.

“I think the law as it was last year was better for schools and for students’ behavior but I understand why they made the change,” Stiles said.

SB 393 was created to address issues related to student discipline, the issuance of citations to students for school misconduct and the process for sending students to the juvenile or municipal court system for the prosecution of certain misdemeanor offenses.

Introduced by Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, the law incorporated aspects of a study by the Juvenile Justice Committee of the Texas Judicial Council.

“Too many juveniles are entering the criminal justice system due to the fact that there are no other alternatives,” West said. “It is often the case that minors who commit minor fine-only misdemeanors face more stringent fines and court costs than those minors who commit more heinous or felonious offenses. Additional diversionary measures are needed in order to provide early interventions for minors who commit certain minor offenses. This will allow more resources to be focused on those minors with the potential to commit more serious acts of violence.”

West said SB 393 puts in place statutory suggestions of the Texas Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the judiciary in this state, that provide for diversionary programs prior to the referral to municipal and justice courts.  

Specifically, the bill removes ticketing as a means to address certain behaviors on school district property and puts in place a complaint-based system, similar to what is currently done for truancy.  

It establishes graduated sanctions, such as warning letters, school-based community service, or referral to counseling, for juveniles who committed certain fine-only misdemeanors prior to referral to court.  

It expands the use of juvenile case managers by allowing for their use without a formal court order and prior to cases being filed.  

The law authorizes local juvenile boards to authorize law enforcement to dispose of certain fine-only offenses without referral to a court, and adds Class C misdemeanors, other than traffic offenses, to the list of offenses that can be disposed of through the use of first offender programs.

“The requirement by SB 393 for public schools to implement progressive sanctions for certain misdemeanor offenses prior to citations being issued, is a two-edged sword,” Brownsboro ISD Superintendent Dr. Chris Moran said. “We expect our campuses to work with students and parents to improve behavior, however this new law creates disturbing scenarios in the school.”

One of the disturbing scenarios Moran refers to is a student who attends school under the influence of alcohol.

“For instance, if a student came to school under the influence of alcohol prior to SB 393, it would have resulted in a Class C citation from law enforcement and discipline assigned by the school,” Moran said.  “As a result of SB 393, the student receives nothing from law enforcement and only school discipline applies. If that same student were to have been found at the gas station in that condition, it is likely they would have received a citation.”

Moran said he appreciates the fact that the law will reduce the burden on the courts, but he does not agree with the fact that a student can commit a crime on a school campus and receive less punishment from law enforcement than they would have if they were outside of school.

“Brownsboro ISD will continue to work with students and parents to help develop good behavior and a strong academic program, but this law appears to give the courts a break and place the burden back on the school system,” Moran said.

Class C misdemeanors are offenses that are punishable by a fine not to exceed $500 and no confinement. The bill does not address higher forms of punishment like Class A or Class B misdemeanors.

In the previous system, students who did not pay their fines could be arrested as soon as they turned 17 years old. Even if fines were paid, the offenses could still appear on their criminal record.

According to the Texas Supreme Court, roughly 300,000 students each year are given citations for behavior considered a Class C misdemeanor.

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