Round Rock Drops Charges Against Immigration Demo Students

City Council saves face, and possibly a lot of money, by voting to drop misdemeanor charges against 70 students involved in pro-immigration demonstrations last spring

On April 12, Round Rock City Council saved face, and possibly a lot of money, by voting to drop misdemeanor charges against 70 students involved in pro-immigration demonstrations last spring, thus halting a federal lawsuit filed against the city and Round Rock Independent School District. In March 2006, a number of high school students cut classes to join a national march protesting proposed immigration laws. Police issued 209 citations to students for violating a city curfew ordinance and/or disrupting class, and students and parents then sued.

Upon word of the settlement, which was hammered out in mediation, false information – that the school district would pay students a hefty cash settlement – was leaked and reported in the press. This was untrue, according to an urgent corrective communiqué from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which backed the lawsuit and organized a pool of pro bono lawyers to represent the plaintiffs. Instead, the settlement stipulates that officials will establish a $41,400 case expungement fund, to be administered by TCRP, from which students can draw up to $400 apiece. TCRP will receive $50,350 in attorneys' fees and costs; the rest will go to college scholarships for the students. Despite the payout, the city and school will be out relatively little money, due to insurance coverage, and will be spared hefty legal costs that would have accrued had trials progressed.

The settlement may not have bestowed any monetary favors upon students, but it did offer them something possibly more valuable than that: a clean slate. The specific terms of the settlement are as follows: Round Rock authorities will dismiss all pending municipal trials against students; Williamson Co. will be encouraged not to fight the appeal of the one student who lost at trial; city and school officials will cooperate to expunge student arrest records; and the school district will seal disciplinary records, destroying them three years from the date of each incident and never disclosing them in response to requests for academic records.

Officials also took the opportunity to treat the settlement as a "teaching moment," writing in the provision that students must attend community forums on the First Amendment. "The settlement agreement resolves all matters between the parties, and, among other things, requires education for the students concerning civics and allows all parties to move forward in a positive manner," according to a joint statement issued by plaintiffs and defendants.

The case had amounted to a learning opportunity for officials, too, in that plaintiffs had based their case on an interpretation of the truancy ordinance that directly contradicted the basis for the misdemeanor citations. Plaintiffs' argument was that Round Rock's truancy ordinance allows students to miss school if they are exercising their right of free speech. Though the settlement, like most settlements, had a typical "no fault" happy ending, some litigants expressed the belief that the city wouldn't have settled had officials not felt they had erred in charging the students. In turn, the county's decision to settle was not unanimous, with Mayor Pro Tem Alan McGraw casting the dissenting vote. When the controversial case finally wound down, neither side had to admit wrong nor conclude the other side was right, leaving unsettled the question of whether Round Rock's truancy law indeed provides for the exercise of free speech by students.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

immigration demonstrations, Round Rock City Council, Round Rock Independent School District, Texas Civil Rights Project, truancy ordinance, Alan McGraw

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