The last two decades have seen a rise in the number of police officers in middle and high schools. One unintended consequence is that many students will get criminal records long before they graduate, for offenses that aren’t necessarily criminal.
At Thomas Edison Middle School last fall, Zyria Grizelle was getting sick of the class clown. She says he kept slapping her sore arm.
So she grabbed a book and threw it at him.
“I hit the computer, and the computer fell,” she said.
Her bad aim cost her -- dearly.
“The officer came in the classroom, told her to come outside the class, and to put her hands behind her back,” said Zyria’s mom, Lacreshia Preston Garrett.
Garrett got a phone call from the school saying her daughter was being arrested. She followed the police car to a holding cell at a detention center to find Zyria.
“She was just crying,” Garrett said. “She said ‘I just know the police come for bad people.’ She was terrified.”
The Dallas Independent School District police say the arrest was for vandalism of school property. Zyria’s first court date with the County Juvenile Department is March 31.
“This kinda broke her spirit a little bit,” her mom said. She had “never been suspended, and now my 12-year-old was arrested.”
Zyria has been offered deferred prosecution, which means she could have the case dismissed.
While Dallas schools declined to comment on this particular case, the head of discipline, C.A. Williams, acknowledged wide differences in how kids are punished at different campuses.
“We are aware of the concern, and as a district we’re taking steps to address those concerns,” Williams said. “We are not a perfect district, and we’re not walking around with our heads in the sand.”
Dallas schools, and others across Texas, have tried to cut back on the number of students who get harshly disciplined with out-of-school suspensions and even criminal charges. Activists point to research showing that zero-tolerance, tough-on crime punishments don’t actually make schools more orderly.
Texas Appleseed is a nonprofit that’s trying to keep kids from being treated like criminals in schools. It issued its first report on what it dubbed the "school-to-prison pipeline in Texas" in 2007.
Since that report, there’s been more evidence that students who are suspended or ticketed and arrested in schools are more likely to be held back a grade, drop out or end up in the criminal justice system.
Two years ago, the Texas legislature raised the bar for school police officers. No more tickets for chewing gum or similar disruptions to class, and no more writing tickets without a formal complaint process.
“These two bills resulted in a more than 50 percent decrease in the total number of class C misdemeanor cases filed against juveniles in a year,” says Deborah Fowler, director of Texas Appleseed.
Some legislators want to reduce the number of kids in juvenile courts even more. Bills filed in the current session would require more training for police officers on campuses, better record-keeping of police arrests at schools and a limit to the force that police officers can use against kids, like Tasers and pepper spray.
For her part, Zyria’s mom recently decided to pull her out of Thomas Edison. She's now living with a cousin in Cedar Hill — outside the Dallas school district.
Zyria's grades have recovered to where they were before she threw that book, and she says she’s slowly making new friends.