Just the Ticket

A middle school student dies after being beaten by a student who has been involved in fights with dozens of smaller, and typically younger, students. Another middle school student opens fire in a crowded hallway on students who have repeatedly beaten him, after his reports to school administrators and local police failed to stop the beatings.

School officials are criticized for overreacting when a student is booked into the local jail for having a pocketknife in his car while on school property. A valued school secretary quits the job she has loved for more than a decade, because she has grown frightened and weary of irate parents yelling and cursing at her when they come to the school to voice complaints.

These true scenarios point to common gaps in the safety net that should be in place in every school. Schools should be a place where certain types of behavior are not tolerated. At the same time, consequences for inappropriate behavior must be viewed as reasonable by the“street committee,” or school administrators may lose the public support that is necessary to an effective educational environment. What options are available to prevent the types of problems described above from happening in your school?

Write Them Up

One extremely powerful tool available to the astute school administrator is the police citation. Schools across the nation have seen dramatic reductions in problematic behaviors, accompanied by increased support from parents and students, after using citations to address minor criminal behavior in the school setting. A thoughtfully implemented ticketing system can help school officials find that reasonable middle ground in the delicate balancing act of providing reasonable and effective consequences.

In most jurisdictions, law enforcement officers have the option of writing a citation for minor criminal violations rather than performing a custodial arrest. This allows officers to bring a case before the court without booking the offender into a detention facility. Moreover, this approach can provide consequences in the form of monetary fines, community service, counseling, probation and other court-ordered measures. Many students and parents, who have previously been unable to control undesirable behavior, learn how to do so after a $250 fine is levied.

A Cooperative Effort

Creative judges in many areas have worked closely with school officials and probation officers to develop local programs that help to improve school climate. In some cases, alternative sentencing programs have been developed to allow cases to be brought to court without processing a formal charge. This permits court officials to levy fines and assign violators to serve community service hours, without creating a permanent criminal record. This system provides for significant sanctions, without the stigma of a conviction record. In some cases, judges have ordered defendants to perform their community service hours on or near school property. Using the labor of offenders to pick up trash, clean up graffiti or wash school buses can drive the point home that misconduct will not be tolerated.

An effective citation program can also help reduce disruptive behaviors such as students yelling and cursing at teachers in the classroom, or instances where parents act out in like fashion. This type of program has proven to be effective in reducing the occurrence of offenses such as trespassing and possession of alcohol on school property and at school events. Citation programs have also been a key component to a number of highly successful truancy-reduction programs. And above all else, this approach has been very effective at reducing the occurrence of triggering behaviors such as fighting, throwing of gang hand signs and criminal forms of bullying that precede most instances where weapons are used in schools.

The use of citations has another very important benefit; it helps to keep kids in school who would otherwise be suspended or expelled. By combining other forms of school discipline with the powerful deterrent effect of monetary fines, schools can reduce the need for out-of-school suspensions, assignments to alternative schools and the number of students expelled over time. This aspect helps to build strong support for a well-thought-out ticketing program.

Not Always Simple

In some jurisdictions, court officials may claim that a ticketing system cannot be used because of the structure of the legal system. Creative judges and political leaders can overcome these obstacles. In some cases, ticketing programs have been established through a modification of local operating procedures, implementing them as part of an existing diversion program or through the creation of a local ordinance. It may not be easy, but an effective citation system can be established. Experience has shown that it is worth the effort.

Proactive communities have had excellent results with the use of citations to address problems often encountered in schools. Whether your community would like to reduce truancy or the likelihood of a major weapons incident, this type of program may be just the ticket.

Michael S. Dorn is the School Safety Specialist for the Office of the Governor — Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is one of the nation’s top school safety experts. His next book, School/Law Enforcement Partnerships: A Guide to Police Work in Schools, is due for publication this summer.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.