I haven't been following very closely this story about high school kids in Round Rock who got arrested for skipping school during the immigration rallies back in March, but I've got a few thoughts about it now.
Of the more than 200 students cited for breaking daytime curfew, more than 80 have pleaded guilty or no contest to their citations, agreeing to pay fines or do community service.
But about half pleaded not guilty and requested jury trials, arguing that the curfew that requires them to be in school provides an exception for exercising free speech rights. The citations are a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine.
The prosecutions have outraged civil rights groups, attorneys and some local residents who say the city seems more concerned with protecting its tough-on-crime image than the students' rights. They note that they haven't heard of any other towns prosecuting student protesters.
The Texas Civil Rights Project is representing 82 students, promising costly court battles that could tie up Round Rock's municipal court.
"We don't think they broke the law," said Efrain Davila, a 52-year-old Round Rock resident who criticized the prosecutions at a City Council meeting Thursday night. "They came down too heavy-handed and now it's a criminal thing and we don't think it's a criminal thing. The whole United States saw it differently, except for Round Rock."
Davila said it was a mistake to ticket the students in the first place.
"I think they thought they could bully their way into getting these kids to conform and plead guilty and do community service," he said. "Now, we have these litigates at the door, biting at the bit to defend these kids, and I think the city attorney is going to be hard-pressed to prosecute these kids, and now we're in a pickle."
"The MO of the Round Rock Police Department is that we're going to do what's the right thing to do," said Capt. Tim Ryle, who led the issuance of citations. "And that means that we don't turn our heads when a crime is committed, no matter if it's just a little bitty one, because it's important to hold people accountable."
Ryle said police were concerned about the students' rights and even escorted them on foot and in police cars during a march through town to ensure their safety.
He said he thinks the majority of youths left school because they were passionate about the issue, but that some just saw a chance to skip class, and that's why each case should be judged individually
Last week, a municipal court judge granted a prosecutor's motion to dismiss the cases, which were scheduled for trial June 30. The motion said there was insufficient evidence to prove the two girls weren't exercising their First Amendment rights.
The next trials, for four students, are set for July 7.
Critics of the prosecutions cheered the dismissals, saying they may indicate a change of heart, or at least of strategy, for a city that initially tried to persuade the students to plead guilty.
"What I sense is going on is they're suddenly coming to the realization that they may not have the solid legal ground they thought they did," said Jim Harrington, director of the civil rights group. "Also, a lot of eyes are focused on Round Rock and now they're hopefully starting to come around."
I can understand the rationale for having a daytime-curfew law (though I have to ask - is truancy that big a problem in general in Round Rock?), but I think the police overreacted. Captain Ryle seems to imply that he thinks the the kids who were just there to skip class are the ones who were really breaking the law. Why not just give them the citations? If the answer to that question is "because we can't read their minds", then there was no point in citing anyone, since the First Amendment defense would then apply universally. The police are allowed to exercise their discretion in matters like this. I realize that selective ticketing would surely leave them open to allegations of unfairness, but being indiscriminate has its own set of consequences, too, especially for the kids who have already given in to the pressure to plead out.
If this is all sounding a bit like the Sugar Land Kiddie Roundup, well, same here. Everyone in that case who resisted the push to cop a quick plea later saw the charges against them dropped. I won't be at all surprised if that's what happens here.
And just so we're clear:
There were two days of protests. The first day, students from Stony Point High School marched to Round Rock High School, alarming school officials and causing them to lock down the school. Police said they just gave warnings and instructed students not to do it again.
The next day, they did it again. Police issued more than 200 citations, but only after escorting the students through town, trying to "keep them from getting run over," Ryle said.
Gordon Perez, Round Rock high's associate principal, said the school also disciplined the students with in-school suspensions or Saturday detention. Perez said the students may not have been punished as severely if they hadn't unsettled both campuses.
"Their whole day was disrupted as a result of this situation," Perez said.
UPDATE: Stace comments.Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 12, 2006 to National news | TrackBack