ELLIS COUNTY

Students from surrounding counties with felonies are moving into Ellis County school districts to remain in public education, possibly avoiding jail time, according to several Ellis County superintendents.

Those superintendents expressed the necessity of a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Placement center that would serve to educate distraught students, providing structure and discipline.

Four of the seven surrounding counties house a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Placement (JJAEP) facility. Furthermore, 31 counties in Texas house a JJAEP, 26 of them being mandatory, according to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

In the state of Texas, it is mandatory for a county to facilitate a JJAEP when a census finds a population of 180,000 or more. It is projected that the 2020 census will require Ellis County to operate a JJAEP.

A JJAEP is located in the county seat and would, hypothetically, function between the county and Waxahachie ISD. Waxahachie currently houses a 1,600-square foot building that serves as the Ellis County Juvenile Services office and short-term detention facility.

The complex is also the site of the Law Enforcement Training Center and County storage building.

Ellis County Judge Carol Bush explained, “When the Juvenile Services building was being constructed in the spring of 2011, that contiguous space was identified as a potential classroom, for a limited number of students, in case the county was mandated to implement a JJAEP.”

The county judge also serves as the chief budget officer for the county. Bush explained the county budget could be strained if the state implements an unfunded mandate and expects the county to fund it or heavily subsidize the mandate.

The operation of a JJAEP would naturally impact local taxpayers.

“As a conservative who has kept the county tax rate in the lowest 15 percent of 254 counties across Texas, it is frustrating to tell our community that it may have additional costs to bear," Bush stated.

Back in 2011, Bush’s office estimated the budgetary impact roughly more than $250,000.

She added that in 2011, superintendents across the county submitted written letters to the state, which exempted Ellis County from creating a JJAEP until it reached the mandatory population.

But, in 2018, district leaders voiced in favor of the facility.

Bush iterated the county’s mission to transform young lives and create a safer community. She agreed implementing a JJAEP would be triggered by the 2020 census.

“While it is an unusual pairing of county government and education, it will be critical to engage all affected entities to discuss shared funding, resources and goals for the successful implementation of a JJAEP,” Bush elaborated.

THE PERSPECTIVE

Superintendents across Ellis County agree that a JJAEP is necessary so District Alternative Placement (DAP) centers won’t be as full and so struggling students can receive appropriate services.

A DAP operates through the district, usually in a building off campus. Students are typically moved there when they commit an offense that’s ongoing or a one-time offense that’s accelerated beyond an in-school suspension.

Red Oak ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Goddard analyzed the District Alternative Placement facility, critiquing its programs after talking with DAP students.

“It’s a need to provide the best opportunities for our kids. Others may perceive it as we just want to send our kids off. But it’s really not,” Goddard emphasized.

Goddard stressed the need for title-five felony students to be separated from others who might have participated in a fistfight or who refuses to abide by the dress code. He said the two types of students require a different structure but are receiving the same treatment. He concluded, the DAP cannot fully impact the student struggling more.

Goddard relayed the conversations he had with students in DAP.

“Sometimes they are very scared,” Goddard recalled. “They are in an environment — I may have a kid that’s only there for 30 days, and I may have another kid who committed a more egregious offense. We try to separate them out as best we can, but they still check in together and leave.”

He added, “Most of them are remorseful and want to give back, and we’ve got them in an environment with others who will be there for an entire year. It can sometimes be a negative influence.”

If a student does make an offense while in the DAP districts are limited to disciplining the child.

According to Appendix E of the Texas Education Data Standards, “If a student is expelled in a county that doesn’t have a JJAEP, the local education agency may either expel the student without academic placement or the student may be expelled with placement to a DAP.”

The student could do out of school suspension, but Italy ISD Superintendent Lee Joffre expressed how out of school suspension and expulsion is preferably the last resort.

“That leaves a potentially dangerous person unsupervised in a non-educational environment,” Joffre elaborated. “The development of a JJAEP in Ellis County will give schools an option of removing dangerous students from our schools. While in JJAEP the students can continue their education with a goal of rehabilitation.

Waxahachie ISD Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Glenn reiterated the unanimous stance Ellis County district leaders share about housing a JJAEP, saying, “It’s at the top of our list.”

“It forces Waxahachie to maintain those specialized services in our regular education setting or our district alternative education setting,” Glenn explained. “And, from a functional standpoint, that’s a huge cost on us, and it creates a safety issue when you’re asked to mainstream those kids in regular classes, and they are not allowed to get the help they need from a JJAEP.”

Some students from Ellis County and some transferring into the school districts have committed serious crimes such as assault, use of a deadly weapon, grand theft, sexual assault and more. When underaged students are not forced into a juvenile facility, they are in the campus classrooms and DAPs.

Districts might average one student a year that would benefit from a JJAEP where others have about a handful. No matter the number of students, superintendents are serious about getting students the help they need to return back to school.

Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450