A bill in the Texas House authored by State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) would allow a school district to require mental health evaluations of students at the sole discretion of the school. This could lead to wrongful mental health determinations, and result in suspensions or alternative education placements of students, even creating an offense.
Villalba has received much negative criticism for his previously proposed House Bill 2918, which would criminalize bloggers, independent journalists and regular citizens in filming police officers, which Breitbart Texas reported. The Dallas rep also authored HB 2006, which would negate religious and philosophical exemptions that have left vaccination “choice” in parents’ hands.
House Bill 985 walks a treacherous tightrope. The bill would give teachers and school administrative officials the power to diagnose a student as having mental health issues. This would enact a 30-day warning to the parents to seek psychological screenings within that time frame.
The proposed legislation reads: “the requirement that the parent or guardian, before the expiration of the 30-day period, to avoid suspension of the student under this section, take the student to the nearest local mental health authority or a physician specializing in psychiatry to receive a mental health screening and a certificate of medical examination for mental illness, as described by Section 533.03522(c), Health and Safety Code, that contains the examining physician’s opinion that the student is not a danger to oneself or others.”
The Health and Safety Code only mentions practitioners in context of federal and state agencies. There is no mention of families contracting private sector mental health or medical professionals nor does HB 985 indicate any role the family plays in the diagnosis or even in the process other than to do what the legislation requires of them.
During the evaluation period, a student would be placed in the often off-campus Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP). This behavioral education was instituted in Texas public education in 1995. It substitutes the regular classroom for students who commit “virtually any disciplinary violation or certain criminal offenses specified in Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code,” according to Schooling a New Class of Criminals? by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).
The study took a critical look at a system where “discretionary” referrals had already become the greater share of alternative education placements – over 80 percent. TPPF cautioned that the broad nature of categorical offenses – disruptive, abusive or violence — meant that a school district could find a “basis for using virtually any disciplinary violation as justification for discretionary DAEP referral.”
Another finding in 2006 was that DAEP state requirements were almost non-existent under Texas Education Code Section 37.008.
Because of the state’s Safe School Act of 1995, school districts were mandated to establish these alternative programs. Between 1999 and the 2003-04 school year DAEP placements skyrocketed 47 percent from 70,728 to 103,696 students, according to TPPF. They also pointed out that the average length of a student’s stay in DAEP jumped from 29.04 days in 2002-03 to 42.5 days in 2003-04.
DAEP can and often does remain on a student’s permanent records. This has the capacity to impact the future when a teenager applies to college or seeks employment. According to HB 985, a student would not be able to be released from DAEP without a certificate of medical examination for mental illness. It is not clear who and what organization would perform that evaluation.
HB 985 flies in the face of the current trend to decriminalize the already over-criminalized Texas public education system. Breitbart Texas spoke with Villalba, who insisted that this bill would not re-criminalize behavior. The bill states, “If an educator employed by a school district or open-enrollment charter school observes or is informed about conduct of a student or a statement made by the student that would cause a reasonable person to believe the student intends or is likely to commit sexual violence against another or intends or is likely to cause serious bodily injury to self or others, the educator shall provide notice to the school counselor.”
There is also trepidation over the margin of error over diagnoses. In response to the Northwest Independent School District (ISD) uproar over a student penning a gruesome fictional rampage naming actual schoolmates, families spoke to Breitbart Texas, divulging the extent to which children their own children — kids with no criminal histories or records — received harsh punishments in the zero tolerance “code of conduct” climate — In-School-Suspension (ISS), Out-of-School Suspension (OSS), DAEP and even Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEP). Today, a mistake can mean a juvenile Class C, B, or A misdemeanor.
Many of these parents told Breitbart Texas that they were never consulted. They were only informed that their teenagers were being placed in ISS or DAEP. Additionally, Breitbart Texas has reported on kid skirmishes, show-and-tell, and truancy erupting into OSS, juvenile criminal charges and arrests.
Texas Appleseed staff attorney Morgan Craven spoke to Breitbart Texas about HB 985. “We are very concerned with any legislation that increases the likelihood that students will be punished with suspensions, expulsions, or alternative education program placements,” she said.
A number of legitimate threats were just addressed in Texas schools. In spite of this, a teenager’s random comments that were taken out of context had police storming a Tarrant County high school on March 26. CBS DFW reported that the Azle Independent School District (ISD) assistant superintendent said that the comment was never a threat. She explained that the student “popped off and said something not very responsible.” She said that what he said was “everyone who did not wear red tomorrow to school should be shot.”
Villalba told Breitbart Texas that his legislation was inspired by the 2013 brutal rape-murder of six-year-old Alanna Gallagher by a troubled Dallas-Fort Worth neighborhood teen. The tragedy did not happen in a school setting. In the name of public safety; however, HB 985 would open that Pandora’s Box of overreach to include a student’s action or comments “on or off school property, and during or outside regular school hours.”
Craven also raised another key concern with HB 985. She cited the Council of State Governments report Breaking Schools’ Rules. This showed that while, generally, children with disabilities are suspended or expelled more than children without disabilities, students with emotional disturbances are even more likely to receive these harsh punishments. She said, “90.2% of kids with emotional disturbances had at least one disciplinary action over the course of the study and 48.4% of students with emotional disturbances were suspended or expelled 11 or more times.”
Additionally, issuing more exclusionary disciplinary actions against a student increases the likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system, and other negative outcomes. This contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Even though it is a post-9/11, post-Newtown world, a bill like HB 985 leaves much consternation on the mental health and the juvenile justice fronts. Craven added, “We are particularly concerned when children with mental health issues are punished in this way because we know that there are better options, like evaluations, counseling, and services, that do not require the use of exclusionary discipline to be effective.”
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