Proposed Law Would Let Teachers Access Student Crime Records

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    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 always been confidential and are unavailable 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.

    The new disclosure rules were passed by legislators with little public attention last month. 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 that 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.

    "The bottom line is protecting teachers," said Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican from the Dallas suburb of Plano, who sponsored the legislation.

    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-based 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 "all pertinent 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.

    Texas Youth Commission spokesman Jim Hurley said the agency is already providing more information to schools about parolees as the result of a recent state attorney general's opinion.

    Forty-six states require that schools be notified of criminal acts committed by students, although usually not until the student is formally judged delinquent, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

    Teachers too often must "see in the dark" when it comes to understanding potential problems posed by students, said Bernard James, a law professor at Pepperdine University who specializes in education issues. What Texas is considering "is a landmark piece of legislation," he said.

    However, the scope of the measure alarms some juvenile justice advocates. They worry that students who have committed crimes will be automatically placed in alternative education programs or subjected to other prejudicial treatment. They also point out that the written arrest notifications could haunt students even if they are cleared.

    "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. "When you're blindsided, that's when you get fearful or put yourself or someone else in harm's way."

    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?"

    The student who stabbed Henry had been released because he was suffering from schizophrenia and other psychological problems that couldn't be treated in custody. The district was told the boy, who had a criminal record as well as special needs, would be fine as long as he was "stabilized medically," said Tyler Superintendent Randy Reid.

    Reid said he is skeptical how much a school can do even it knows more.

    "Certainly, the new guidelines would help us be more alert to what we're getting," he said. "But if these are children who are dangerous to be around, we're not really equipped to handle that."