On the morning of September 23, 2009, music therapist and special education teacher Todd Henry reported for duty at John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas. It was just two weeks into the school year, and Henry was still getting acquainted with his new crop of students, including 16-year-old Byron Truvia.
Henry was never told about Truvia’s troubled past. At the age of 10, the boy’s mother had him committed to a psychiatric hospital. At 14, Truvia stabbed his sister, and was detained by the Texas Youth Commission for two years. He was released in the fall of 2009—just in time to start the school year in Mr. Henry’s class.
On that fateful September morning at 8:50 a.m., Truvia attacked 50-year-old Henry, stabbing him repeatedly in the neck and shoulders. The beloved music teacher died later that day.
Henry’s tragic death prompted Texas to change its policy on juvenile disclosure. Gov. Rick Perry recently signed a new law giving educators more access to information about students’ criminal histories.
The measure requires law enforcement agencies to provide school superintendents with “all pertinent details” of offenses committed by juvenile justice system parolees. Superintendents must then pass the information on to principals and teachers, who would also receive written notification of student arrests.
Rep. Jerry Madden, the legislation’s sponsor, said that the law ensures "a safe learning environment" for teachers and students. Texas educators agreed, and strongly supported the measure.
But TakePart spoke with juvenile justice advocates who oppose the disclosure law, and argue that it does more harm than good.
BALANCING SAFETY AND CONFIDENTIALITY
“Certainly there needs to be some significant justification for this level and magnitude of dissemination of juvenile’s confidential information,” said Lisa Bennett, an attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program in Virginia.
Bennett told TakePart that the Texas law goes overboard by requiring superintendents to disseminate sensitive information about a juvenile’s charges to all school personnel “without regard for whether the building level administrators, teachers, and other staff will have any further direct contact with the juvenile or whether they have any need for the information to ensure the physical safety of themselves or others.”
“This is definitely not a step in the right direction,” she added, “and appears to be a reaction to a tragedy that will have many significant consequences for students."
Bennett criticized the law for requiring school superintendents, upon receiving notification of a student’s arrest, to determine whether the student’s conduct met the definition of a felony offense.
“This must happen presumably even before the child has been arraigned before a court and without regard to whether the superintendent has the knowledge and training to make such determinations,” she observed. “Once information is released it is impossible to recapture and the potential damage to a student’s reputation and well-being is significant.”
VIRGINIA’S SB 1218
In 2009, when a juvenile disclosure bill called SB 1218 was proposed in Bennett’s home state of Virginia, it was strongly opposed by juvenile justice advocates. They argued that the state already had adequate laws in place to protect the safety of teachers and students.
For instance, Bennett explained that Virginia superintendents are notified when a student is charged with a serious crime such as sexual assault, drug distribution, an incident involving firearms, or a gang-related offense. Superintendents can disclose this information to principals if it’s necessary to ensure the physical safety of students or personnel. The principal can then divulge the information to faculty and staff, but only if they have direct contact with the juvenile.
In addition, students adjudicated delinquent of serious crimes are required to inform public schools in advance of their admission.
Opponents of SB 1218 also claimed that open disclosure laws would harm rehabilitation efforts by stigmatizing youth, and that disseminating confidential mental health information was an unlawful violation of children’s privacy under HIPAA.
Virginia’s disclosure bill was ultimately defeated.
BEYOND THE LABEL
The purpose of keeping juvenile records confidential is to allow young people to move beyond early mistakes, and to have a shot at leading a normal life. When a student’s criminal history is disclosed to teachers, said Bennett, that goal is jeopardized.
“Student-teacher relationships are already strained by increased class sizes and the stresses associated with decreases in school budgets,” she elaborated. “Teachers need more reasons to invest in the education and success of their students, not less. It is likely to result in some teachers stigmatizing and labeling students as ‘troubled’ and dismissing them from education opportunities.”
Terri Braxton is the vice president of business development at the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA).
She told TakePart that while some teachers may use information about a child’s criminal history against the child, others may use it for the child’s benefit. “Anybody can take information and use it in a very positive way, or in a not-so-positive way,” she explained. “I can see a teacher getting that information, and really putting forth an extra effort with the child knowing their background. The teacher might be a little more patient, and willing to work with the child.”
Braxton added that CWLA is “always in favor of doing what’s in the best interest of the child,” especially when it comes to divulging confidential information.
“We are very protective of that, and really feel like everything should be on a need-to-know basis,” she stressed. “We take confidentiality with kids very seriously. Any action adults take should be protective of the child’s best interests.”
Do you think teachers should be told about the criminal histories of their students?