African-American students have far more run-ins with school cops

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Ted Oberg investigates trends that concerns parents, lawyers, board members and activists. (KTRK)

African-American students are far more likely to be suspected of crimes by school police than students of any other race, police data from the Houston Independent School District and Cy-Fair ISD show.

And at Fort Bend ISD, where preliminary numbers show the same pattern, school officials refuse -- unlike their counterparts at HISD and Cy-Fair -- to turn over fuller crime numbers with details of race, claiming the process will cost hundreds of dollars.

According to a Ted Oberg Investigates analysis of interactions between school police officers and students between 20014 and 2016:

  • Black students make up just 24 percent of HISD's student body, but are 55 percent of HISD police suspects. Other students -- including white, Asian and Native American -- count for just over 40-percent of suspects when school police are involved. HISD administrators note that it's unclear if those numbers are accurate, citing outdated records management software. HISD also said that 60 percent of its police force is African-American.
  • In the Cypress-Fairbanks school system, 16 percent of students are African-American, but make up 40 percent of student criminal suspects. White students count for 32 percent of Cy-Fair's student body and are suspects in school crimes about 31 percent of the time. Cy-Fair officials said they are addressing such issues through management and diversity awareness training.
  • Earlier this year during an abc13 report into three years of forgery arrests at Fort Bend ISD, records showed that in every case in which a suspect's race is listed, the suspect was a student of color. For documentation in connection with all crimes, Fort Bend sent abc13 a bill for $500 even though their own information technology software supplier said the information could be easily supplied.

These numbers reflect national trends seen in big city police departments through the U.S. But to some parents, lawyers, board members and activists that abc13 spoke with, these numbers are disquieting.

"We should expect the school district police to do better, to be better," HISD trustee Jolanda Jones said. "We're responsible for children. These are kids and children don't always make the best mistakes."

A key problem for this report: Police chiefs from all three school districts that Ted Oberg Investigates examined refused to discuss on camera this issue even though this data was requested months ago and formal interview requests were made weeks ago.

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Ted Oberg Investigates crimes and race within multiple school districts.

School district officials did provide some answers in writing.

"CFISD is aware of the disproportionate placement of minority students nationally," a spokeswoman for Cy-Fair ISD said in a statement. We are committed to addressing this issue and have implemented a variety of measures to do so, including classroom management techniques and diversity awareness training for staff."

Also, CFISD police officers don't pick the calls they respond to, the spokeswoman noted.

"As a result of the continued implementation of positive behavioral intervention systems, we have experienced a decrease in minority discipline referrals," the statement read. "All incidents brought to the attention of CFISD are investigated according to best practices and state standards throughout and fairly regardless of race or gender."

While discipline referrals may be dropping, a check of Cy-Fair's most recent discipline report to the Texas Education Agency reveals the district sends African-American students to alternative school, and gives them out of school and in-school suspension at a disproportionate rate as well.

HISD Police Chief Robert Mock said in a statement said there have been improvements there.

For example, HISD police no longer write any citations to any student under 18 years of age and said the Harris County District Attorney's office is consulted with before charges are filed against those students. He also said that all of his officers receive cultural diversity and ethics training at least once every two years and that all his officers just completed 20 hour school-based law enforcement training.

Mock also raised questions with the numbers examined by abc13.

"We do not have confidence in the accuracy of the information provided in the report to Mr. Oberg because it contains all arrest data including traffic citations and off campus incidents involving adults and juveniles," Mock said. "Although we believe we reflect national averages in arrests of African American males, we cannot verify the accuracy of the report given to him. This is one of the many reasons we have contracted for a new records management system to help us better track data."

HISD data separated students from other categories of suspects. abc13 counted only students in our analysis of the data. Furthermore an analysis of misdemeanor tickets in HISD by non-profit group Texas Appleseed in 2011 showed the same percentage of African-American defendants within 0.7%.

One of those data points had a very human story. She's was an HISD Yates High School sophomore who got into a fight after she said she was cyber-bullied.

She is a black student. ABC13 is hiding her identity over her concerns of retaliation.

"They would tweet... about mace and fighting." she said, threatening "to fight, to beat me up."

They did it all on Twitter, she said, "for the whole world to see."

When it eventually led to actual fight outside a classroom, she was arrested by HISD police.

She felt that she was charged because she is black.

"It's already a target on our back." she said.

The assault charge was dismissed with the help of attorney Mani Nezami.

Nezami is also a juvenile justice expert at Texas Southern University's Earl Carl Institute.

He believes much of the interaction that black students have with police stems from bullying.

"We have a number of clients where students are being bullied in school, they go to their parents, the parents go to the principal's office and the principal intervenes," he said.

But Nezami said that in his experience, white students at wealthier schools get intervention early on to avoid the school's police getting involved. Not so for many African-American pupils in poorer schools.

"That leads one of two conclusions," he said. "Either children of color are worse or just bad children or the problem isn't with them, the problem is above them. I represent children in a number of different school districts of all races and I can tell you that the same bullying and fighting that happens at Yates happens at Bellaire at wealthier schools."

Nezami said he's tried to have discussions about this with school leaders, but doesn't get far.

"The school will always say we take every case of bullying seriously," he said. "They give you a standard boilerplate answer."

All of this is no surprise to HISD activist Travis McGee. He often can't get answers, either.

"HISD don't talk about too much these days," he said. "Everything they're doing right now is secret. Now these are public servants but they have way too much privacy. They should be just as vocal about these things as when they're trying to get elected. Any leadership that can't be questioned is questionable leadership."

HISD's Jones is certain she can get answers -- and hopes police can be more prudent when interacting with kids who are acting up.

"A police officer's greatest weapon is discretion," the trustee said.

And even though Ted Oberg Investigates couldn't get a meeting with the HISD police chief, Jones can.

"I had a come to Jesus meeting with the police chief," she said. "I am waiting for the police chief to see if he believes we have a problem. If he doesn't acknowledge there is a problem, then he is the problem."

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