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Victoria County juvenile officials express concern over new disclosure bill

By ADVOCATE STAFF REPORT AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
June 13, 2011 at 1:13 a.m.

Paramedics wheel John Tyler High School teacher Todd Henry to a waiting ambulance, in Tyler in 2009, after he was fatally stabbed by a 16-year-old student who had been discharged by the Texas Youth Commission.

Texas could soon 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.

At least two Victoria County officials who work with juveniles question the effectiveness of the bill.

The legislation, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry's signature, replaces the word "may" with the word "shall," which now mandates that school superintendents shall provide teachers with detailed information about students' criminal histories.

"I understand teachers wanting to know if they have someone who is prone to violence or in possession of weapons in the classroom," said County Court-At-Law No. 1 Judge Laura Weiser. "But we want to give kids the same thing we give adults - the presumption of innocence."

The bill would allow teachers to be informed about all juvenile criminal activity, including deferred adjudication probation, as well as detentions and arrests before convictions have occurred, said Weiser.

Weiser said the added responsibility of mandating superintendents and law enforcement to keep teachers informed of each and every one of students' criminal infractions is sure to be taxing.

"It is going to be a lot for those agencies to handle," she said.

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 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.

Pama Hencerling, the chief juvenile probation officer for the Victoria and Goliad Counties Juvenile Services Departments, said providing teachers with details of students criminal backgrounds could also potentially affect student-teacher relationships.

"I know teachers want to know who is sitting in their classrooms for safety reasons," Hencerling said. "But there's always the human factor in there of how the teacher will treat the child knowing every detail of the child's criminal history.

She continued, "I'm not sure giving everything to everybody is the answer."

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."

Tyler Superintendent Randy 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."

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