(CNN) - As students in Texas head back to school in the coming weeks, a new law will make it easier for schools to discipline students who harass teachers.
The law, which goes into effect on September 1, was passed by the Republican-dominated state legislature in May after a statewide teacher association asked for it to be considered. It requires that public school students who harass school employees be removed from their regular classrooms and be referred to disciplinary alternative education programs, also known as DAEPs.
DAEPs are currently used in Texas an alternative to suspension or expulsion for students who are considered disruptive. Students in DAEPs take classes and learn behavioral management skills separate from their peers in traditional classrooms for a temporary period of time.
The Texas Classroom Teachers Association said it had been receiving reports of students threatening teachers without consequence, and that the law was necessary to ensure educators felt safe in their workplaces and to minimize classroom disruptions.
"One of the main reasons teachers leave the teaching profession is working conditions and we think that this is going to make working conditions a little better," Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., general counsel for TCTA, told CNN.
It's unclear how often teachers or other school employees in Texas are harassed by students, because the state doesn't track specifically track those incidents.
Opponents say the law is too vague
Some social justice advocates are concerned that the law's broad definition of what constitutes harassment will lead to a significant increase in the number of students that are sent to DAEPs. They also argue that it would disproportionately affect students with disabilities and students of color.
Under the law, a student could be removed from their regular classroom and placed in a disciplinary program for behavior that includes making an "obscene" comment, threatening to inflict bodily harm, falsely saying that someone has died or been injured and making repeated phone calls.
"Young people, especially those in middle and high school, might have playful dynamics with their teachers, might have rapport where something can be misinterpreted very easily with this new law, where a young person curses or says something in jest," Andrew Hairston, director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project at Texas Appleseed, said.
Take for example, a student who says "F*** you" to a teacher. The Texas penal code defines an obscene comment as "containing a patently offensive description of or solicitation to commit an ultimate sex act." But the decision on whether that comment is considered obscene is up to school administrators to decide.
"Is that an obscenity under the Texas penal code? I would say it probably isn't," Hollingsworth said. "On the other hand, I would also say if a student does engage in that misbehavior, they should be considered for removal to a DAEP because that kind of disruptive activity seriously impacts the education of the other students in the classroom."
Advocates point out safeguards
Hollingsworth said the law contains safeguards to prevent students from being removed from classrooms in situations that might not warrant it.
Before school officials determine whether a student is placed in a disciplinary program, the teacher who says they were harassed has to meet with that student and the student's parent. Administrators also have to consider whether the student acted in self-defense, what their intent was and whether they have a disability, among other factors.
But Hairston said he fears that school districts could overlook such factors in an attempt to resolve these situations more quickly, landing students in disciplinary programs indefinitely. He said he was concerned that the quality of instruction in those programs was inadequate and could put disciplined students far behind their peers.
Hairston said that state legislatures should allocate resources for schools to hire more trained mental health professionals, including counselors, psychologists and social workers.
"I think that would pay significant dividends in both the cultural shift that needs to take place in a lot of schools across the country and in fostering an environment where young people and educators feel like they are supported and they can thrive and they can flourish," he said.
Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, said how the law is applied will ultimately depend on the districts in which these incidents happen.
"It is important obviously to protect teachers and other employees and allow them to do their work without fear of harassment or threat. So in those respects, this is a helpful tool," she said. "On the other hand, I think there is some potential that it could be viewed more broadly than it needs to be and I think it's going to come down to a case-by-case assessment about whether the factors have been met."
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