High Profile Student Arrests Can Be Misleading

Schools must continue to be able to use court interventions in appropriate cases.
Published: May 29, 2012

The recent case of honor student Diane Tran who was jailed by a Texas probate court judge for failure to comply with the judge’s order for her to attend school has drawn considerable national and international interest.  The case has also resulted in tremendous public support for Tran with more than $70,000 in donations for the student from people in 13 countries.  Many people are outraged at the judge for his handling of this case.  As with many of these high profile cases, a number of people now question the use of courts to address what had for many years has been considered minor school disciplinary issues.

While I agree that there are legitimate questions about whether the actions of the judge are appropriate, I am concerned that broader issues will get lost in individual and unusual cases like this one. This case is far from a typical truancy case and people should be cautious about reading too much into the use of courts to help schools address massive problems such as truancy, the drop-out rate, fights, assaults, disorderly behavior and other situations that have in many cases lead to serious decay of school climate.

We should also remember that non-fatal weapons assaults as well as homicides and other serious criminal behaviors have often occurred in schools when lower level acts of aggression spin out of control because school officials are severely restricted in the tools they can use to confront pervasive and severe societal problems.

Many of our schools are in severe crisis because of disciplinary issues that are raging out of control due to intense and often unrealistic pressure for school officials to try to educate significant numbers of students who refuse to follow instructions, curse regularly at staff and are quick to use lower level physical violence to attack innocent students who are simply trying to get an education.

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There is a disturbing trend for public schools to lose massive numbers of students to charter, private and independent schools as well as to home schooling because they are unable to effectively discipline the most serious offenders among their student populations. Attracting and retaining quality staff and students can become a huge challenge with annual staff turnover approaching 25% in some school districts. One such district I have worked with has lost more than 70,000 students in the past two decades with student discipline being an enormous issue for parents, students and staff.

Another major issue confronting students and staff is the pervasive underreporting of school crime that can occur when efforts to reduce the use of the courts to help school officials maintain a safe and orderly environment. While more passive approaches to student discipline may lower the reported incident rate, the actual rate of violence and crime can quickly and dramatically rise in schools where educators and law enforcement officers are pressured into not prosecuting students for misdemeanor conduct. This can rapidly turn a good school into a prison of fear for many of the students it serves.

It seems apparent that Tran is a very intelligent and hard-working student. Her situation is newsworthy and should be of interest to us. However, while it is a healthy thing for us to question situations such as the placement of Tran in a jail cell for violation of a court order, we should be mindful of the thousands of students who are kept in school each year as well as the millions of students who are not subject to brutal attack and who are otherwise protected each day through the appropriate use of court intervention in our nation’s schools.

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Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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