Texas Teachers May Get to See Kids’ Crime Records

June 14, 2011

By Danny Robbins, Associated Press  |  San Francisco Chronicle  —  

Dallas — Texas is close to enacting a law that would provide teachers with detailed information about the criminal histories of their students, opening juvenile files that have been confidential in most states.

The legislation, spurred by the fatal stabbing of a high school teacher in Tyler in 2009, is adding to a national debate over whether teacher safety should outweigh the rights of young offenders, who traditionally have moved through the juvenile justice system with their privacy protected.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry said the governor is “thoughtfully” reviewing the measure before deciding whether to sign it.

Many juvenile justice experts oppose the new disclosures, saying they would undercut the purpose of youth corrections – allowing young people to move beyond early mistakes to lead normal lives. But many educators insist that teachers are in too much danger.

Texas law already gives schools more background information on students than most states permit. The new law would significantly expand the details released, including accounts of crimes committed.

“This is a real departure from traditional juvenile court law,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco law firm that serves children in the justice system.

More than 4,200 young offenders have been paroled from the state juvenile justice system to enter Texas public schools over the last five years, according to Texas Youth Commission data. About 300 were convicted of aggravated sexual assault or aggravated robbery. No statistics on incidents in schools involving former offenders are available.

Under the new measure, law enforcement agencies must provide school superintendents with details of the offenses committed by parolees, and superintendents must inform teachers. Teachers would also receive written notice of student arrests. Current law allows teachers to be told orally.

Juvenile justice advocates worry that students who have committed crimes will be automatically placed in alternative education programs or subjected to other prejudicial treatment.

“A kid walks into a classroom where the teacher knows all the details of the offense, the teacher would have to be super-human to be open-minded,” said Lawrence Wojcik, a Chicago attorney who chairs the American Bar Association’s juvenile justice committee.

Texas teacher groups strongly support the measure.

“We feel like we can deal with things when we’re in the know,” said Grace Mueller, a middle school teacher in San Marcos and an officer with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

The issue is particularly sensitive for teachers in Tyler, where special education teacher Todd Henry was stabbed to death in his classroom by a 16-year-old student who had been released by the youth commission.

“All the teachers felt a little betrayed,” said Barbara Davis-Staley, an elementary school teacher in the district. “We were wondering, how many more students do we have sitting in our classrooms that have been violent or have mental problems we don’t know about?”

This article appeared on page A – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle.