Dept. of Justice asked to overhaul school discipline at Bonham ISD
The complaint claims Bonham ISD and a city court discriminated against both Black students and disabled students by creating a hostile environment at school.
Four civil rights groups filed a federal complaint on Tuesday accusing the municipal court and public school district of the northeast Texas town of Bonham of unfairly penalizing Black and disabled students for behavior complaints by pushing them out of schools and sometimes into the county jail.
The four groups — Disability Rights Texas, Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, and the National Center for Youth Law — have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to require the district to compensate specifically harmed students for damages, as well as modify its absence guidelines and implement bias training for both court and school employees.
The complaint alleges that the city’s municipal court and Bonham ISD, located outside of Dallas, has discriminated against both Black students and disabled students through creating a hostile environment at school and often sending them to the disciplinary alternative education program, known as DAEP, which educates students who commit specific disciplinary or criminal offenses separately from their peers.
Also on Tuesday, the groups filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency for similar issues for disabled students in the Corpus Christi Independent School District. Neither district has responded to immediate requests for comment.
“School districts are very overwhelmed, and instead of doing what they need to do to serve students properly, they're trying to find an easy way out,” said Olivia Lee, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas who signed the complaint.
“Students with disabilities are really suffering because of that. It's really unfortunate and it is something we're seeing statewide — these are two examples that are just particularly atrocious,” Lee added.
Since 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has required public schools to accommodate disabled students and provide “individualized education plans” to best meet their needs.
One of the Bonham ISD students who was jailed, referred to as “C.J.” in the complaint, is a Black student who has bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dyslexia and qualified for special education. In April 2023, he was on probation for an infraction committed outside of school, Lee said, and as part of his probation, a state district court had ordered him to stay in high school and get his diploma.
At the same time, he occasionally missed school days, sometimes because of his disabilities and for court-ordered appearances. The school excused him for neither and eventually referred him to truancy court, where the municipal judge ordered him to drop out of school and sign up for an online GED program instead, according to the complaint.
The municipal court has a standard form to order students into GED programs with blanks for the defendant's name and hearing, which is uncommon, Lee said.
C.J.’s grandmother, who asked that her name not be shared for safety reasons, said she walked out of the courtroom crying that day. As C.J.' s guardian, she reached out to her boss, who then connected her with Disability Rights Texas.
But police arrested C.J. just two days later for violating the state district court order, and he ended up jailed for more than two weeks.
His grandmother said she visited and called throughout his time in custody, but she wasn’t there when Bonham ISD officials visited and said he could start attending school again on several conditions, including that he receive “a positive report from the DAEP each Friday or spend the weekend in the Fannin County Jail,” the complaint alleged.
“We have gone through a lot of disappointments over the years with the school system, and I just wanted to address it so that no other child would have to go through what he is going through,” C.J.’s grandmother told The Texas Tribune.
In last year’s regular session, state Sen. Judith Zaffrini, D-Laredo, introduced a bill to excuse a student from attending school for five days per school year so that a student may “seek or receive mental or behavioral health treatment, support, or diagnosis with documentation from a health care provider,” according to the bill text. It was left pending in committee.
In Corpus Christi ISD, a similar pattern has emerged: it referred 3% of its student enrollment to truancy court during the 2021-22 school year, and 13% of those referred had special education needs, according to the complaint filed to the TEA.
CCISD has also asked the court to order multiple students to drop out of school and attend a GED program, according to the complaint.
“Both districts are using truancy court as a means of pushing students out of school instead of considering and trying to help with the struggles our clients face inside and outside of the classroom,” said Dustin Rynders, legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. “These students are not missing class because they want to, but because their health requires them to do so. Students deserve to have support and understanding from school officials; instead, CCISD and BISD serve them with truancy notices.”
The DOJ complaint also reports that a Bonham ISD student, referred to as “B.E.”, experienced “blatant racial harassment and racial slurs like the n-word, ‘cotton picker,’ and ‘Black monkey’ from his white classmates, often in the presence or earshot of school staff and administrators without any repercussions.”
B.E.'s family moved to Bonham in 2022, and he has spent at least a year in DAEP.
The complaint states that B.E. pushed another student against the lockers after they called him the n-word multiple times and details how he also felt targeted by the white school resource officer who has handcuffed and arrested him twice while at school in front of other students.
Once, the officer charged him with felony indecency, but “these charges were soon dropped as the allegations were determined to be untrue,” the complaint said.
The second time, he was “allegedly horseplaying on the bus and charged him with felony injury to a minor. He was detained for four weeks and given a psychological evaluation because he was alleged to have ‘anger issues,’” according to the complaint.
District policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and requires district employees to “immediately notify the appropriate District official,” according to the Bonham ISD Board Policy manual.
A Fannin County probation officer and local judge have suggested B.E. ‘s family move so he can attend a different school district.
B.E. and C.J. have spent a lot of their time in DAEP, where the students spend all day in front of a computer and aren’t allowed to speak to each other, C.J. ‘s grandmother said.
Both students have suffered as a result, especially as DAEP lacks accommodations, including a space for C.J. to go when he’s feeling upset. Even bathroom times are limited and monitored, C.J.’s grandmother said.
“I feel like we have been let down by the school system,” she said.
Sadie Edwards, the mother of one complainant, said she hopes for change and inclusivity, according to a press release.
“I know we can’t make change overnight, but maybe this complaint will help others step out and say that we are tired of discrimination and we don’t want it to happen anymore,” Edwards said. “I hope that by the time my grandson is old enough to go to school, he doesn’t have to deal with the same thing."
Neelam Bohra is a 2023-24 New York Times disability reporting fellow, based at The Texas Tribune through a partnership with The New York Times and the National Center on Disability and Journalism, which is based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/06/texas-special-education-doj-students-jailed/.
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