by Scott M. McElhaney
It might seem odd at first for a bar association to be concerned with pipelines. Some oil and gas lawyers and land use lawyers work on issues surrounding the kinds of pipelines that transport oil to refineries and natural gas to end users. Many communications lawyers are following the debate about net neutrality for what some might term the “pipelines” that carry internet traffic. But those are not the sorts of pipelines the Dallas Bar addresses. Several programs we sponsor each year deal with pipelines of a more metaphorical nature—the pipelines that operate in society and channel people towards both dangers and opportunities. I want to take this opportunity to tell you about some of these programs.
One pipeline Dallas Bar members are addressing this year is one that needs to be stopped: the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Rutgers University professor Paul Hirschfiled has argued that “American schools increasingly define and manage the problem of student discipline through a prism of crime control.” His research suggests that a weak economy, high unemployment—especially in poor and minority communities—and strained school district budgets have combined with school disciplinary procedures and the perceptions of some school administrators in ways that turn school discipline issues into criminal justice issues. Instead of treating fighting and unruly behavior at a school as issues to be handled through detentions or suspensions, some of these incidents are turned over to the criminal justice system when it may not be entirely appropriate to do so.
This practice has apparently occurred in Texas with some frequency. Teachers and principals have dealt with much student misbehavior, but some school districts have had school police handle incidents such as disruption of class or fighting by charging students with Class C misdemeanors. While Class C misdemeanors are the least serious criminal offense, a person charged with that kind of crime must appear before a county or municipal judge and can face a fine of up to $500 if found guilty. Someone who does not pay can later be arrested, and even if a fine is paid, records of the incident have been known to appear on some criminal background checks when they should not have.
In its last session, the Texas Legislature passed a law to address this practice. Senator Royce West shepherded to passage Senate Bill 393, which prohibits school police from handing out citations for most misbehavior at school. School police officers can submit complaints, but prosecutors will decide whether to charge students with Class C misdemeanors. Students who are charged by prosecutors can also take advantage of diversion programs where they may be sent to tutoring or counseling or to do community service.
Even with this and other legislation, there is still room to combat the problem of turning a student who gets into a fight at school into a defendant who may be convicted of assault. Former DBA President Rhonda Hunter, along with representatives of several DBA Committees and sister bar associations, has planned a series of programs about the school-to-prison pipeline. The first program was held last month with panelists State Representative Helen Giddings, Associate Judge George Ashford and former DBA President Christina Melton Crain, CEO of DOORS, discussing existing legislation and diversionary programs that reduce recidivism and put students on a more productive path. On August 1 Linda Cliatt-Wayman, the principal of Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia, will discuss how she and her team brought Strawberry Mansion from one of the most persistently dangerous schools in the nation to a school with students who now have hope. In a final program in the fall, we will hold a town hall meeting to address what we can do as lawyers to help school administrators in their efforts to produce productive members of society and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
The DBA is also involved in addressing pipelines of a more positive sort—filling the pipeline of well-qualified students from all backgrounds to practice law in Dallas. One of our core goals as an association is to educate the community about the legal system and motivate students to consider careers in the legal field. And once students are in law school, we encourage well-qualified lawyers to choose Dallas as a place to practice.
On the education front, we recently concluded our annual Law Day events, where we brought hundreds of high school students to the Allen courthouse to introduce them to the jury trial and voir dire process. We also sponsored the Law Day essay and art competitions, which asked Dallas ISD students to complete projects reflecting on the importance of the rule of law in our society. Earlier this year, in our Appealing to the Public program, we had hundreds of students come to Belo to learn about and witness an argument before the Dallas Court of Appeals.
We also try to help fill the qualified students pipeline by through the Summer Law Intern Program, which places exceptional DISD students from all backgrounds in Dallas law offices for the summer. Moreover, we take advantage of the summer months to encourage a diverse array of outstanding law students to fill the pipeline of lawyers coming to Dallas to practice. For each of the past 10 years, through the Morris Harrell Professionalism Committee, chaired by Kim Askew, we have put on a Law Student Professionalism Program, which introduces law students to the importance of service, integrity and professionalism, such as the principles set out in the Texas Lawyer’s Creed. This year, the program was moderated by Aaron Tobin, and the law students who attended were treated to a thoughtful address by Judge Tonya Parker and then had an opportunity to participate in breakout sessions with other fine members of the judiciary such as Judge Jim Jordan, Justice Doug Lang, Judge Ken Molberg, Justice Mary Murphy and Justice Lana Myers.
For even longer, we have also sponsored a series of Minority Clerkship Luncheons. Led by Minority Participation Committee Co-Chairs, Victor Corpuz and Camille Stearns Miller, minority law students are invited to Belo to participate in a program that gives insight into the practice of law in Dallas, offers perspectives from seasoned minority attorneys, and provides an overview of pro bono opportunities in Dallas. The next luncheon is scheduled for Friday, July 11, noon at Belo.
With these programs, we hope to help strengthen the pipeline that brings outstanding law students to Dallas to serve the needs of our growing community.