The Center for Public Integrity
June 2, 2014

GOP leader involved in national movement to reform school discipline policies

A prominent Tennessee state senator involved in national juvenile justice reforms said he is troubled by a recent Center for Public Integrity report on children who’ve been prosecuted for truancy in his state, jailed and given permanent court records without the benefit of appointed legal counsel.

“They should be provided proper notice and counsel at the front end,” said state Sen. Mark Norris, a Republican from Collierville, near Memphis, who is the Tennessee Senate majority leader and was elected last fall to serve as chairman of the national Council of State Governments.

Norris said the findings in the Center’s Juvenile Injustice report “need to be aired,” and if need be, he would consider supporting a legislative solution.

The nonpartisan Council of State Governments provides staff research and policy recommendations to assist leaders in states struggling to shape solutions to problems. The council’s Justice Center has made documenting the negative impact of harsh school discipline — and keeping students out of the criminal justice system — a top priority in recent years.

On Tuesday, with Norris joining in, the influential council plans to unveil a comprehensive “consensus” report on school discipline recommendations.

The report includes ideas authors argue are practical and cost-effective alternatives to removing students from schools through suspension and expulsion. The report also cautions against unnecessary referrals of students to police and to courts for school-based infractions.

The council’s own research — including a longitudinal project tracking suspended Texas students over time — has found that “when students are removed from the classroom as a disciplinary measure, the odds increase dramatically that they will repeat a grade, drop out, or become involved in the juvenile justice system.” The report found that such actions disproportionately affect children of color and students with special needs.

Norris said he has similar concerns about truancy prosecutions that fail to address kids’ individual needs and problems and introduces them to the criminal justice system.

He said he’s been troubled to realize that kids get sent to court in the Memphis area for infractions like school dress code violations. “They still have the young boy there for the drooping drawers or sassing,” he said.

The Center’s Juvenile Injustice report featured a student whose records show she was jailed the first time she appeared in court in Tennessee’s Knox County and pleaded guilty to truancy without the benefit of a lawyer.

Although truancy is not a crime, the student — who was struggling with unrecognized special needs at school — was unaware the court gave her a delinquency record in connection with her truancy. Such a record remains on file unless youths later request such files be expunged.

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