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Proposed Texas bill would send students who fight in school to referral program in Eagle Lake

Representative Steve Toth helped create Texas HB 34, which aims to establish a referral program for students who engage in violent criminal conduct at school.

EAGLE LAKE, Texas — A Texas state representative is proposing a bill he believes will curb fighting in schools. It involves a referral program for kids who engage in violent behavior.

Currently, when kids fight in school, administrators have a couple of options. They can suspend them or send them to alternative schools.

Representative Steve Toth wants kids who fight to instead be sent to a program sponsored by the Texas National Guard in Eagle Lake, Texas.

KHOU 11 was invited to the campus for an inside look at how the program works. Approximately 80 cadets were enrolled. 

One of them was Private First Class Joshua Crane, 16. He has a big responsibility at the Texas ChalleNGe Academy. It is his job to make sure his platoon keeps in step and on time.

Earlier this school year, Crane admits, he was marching to the beat of a different drum.

“I was mostly getting in trouble with my friends. They had like weed and vapes and those kinds of things I wasn’t supposed to have. I kept doing the same things and my dad was catching me. I was enrolled in AEP alternative enrollment placement because I kept getting in trouble at school. One day I got caught at school, and I ended up having a court date,” PFC Crane said.

Crane says his case worker presented The ChalleNGe Academy as an option.

“At first, I thought it was like a boot camp, you know, they were going to be yelling at my face and calling me curse words,” Crane said.

But Crane and the other cadets who signed up quickly learned the academy is not a punishment. Rather it's an opportunity to grow and form new habits.

The cadets sleep, eat, and go to school on campus for five and a half months.

Ten weeks in, Crane had already turned over a new leaf. He says he has lost weight and has found more productive ways to spend his free time.

“I started reading a lot more," Crane said. We go to the library every Tuesday, and I also write letters. Just doing things that seem like they are better for my brain."

The program has gotten the attention of Representative Steve Toth.

“We need a solid diversion program that enables children to continue to get an education while learning discipline while learning boundaries, Toth said.

Toth helped create Texas HB 34, which aims to establish a referral program for students who engage in violent criminal conduct at school.

“If it’s a systematically violent child that’s assaulting teachers and other students, and they’ve all had the means have failed, then we can either say, you have a choice, your son is either going to go to jail for criminally assaulting someone, or they are going to go through the ChalleNGe program out in Eagle Lake,” Toth said.

Director of the Texas ChalleNGe Academy, David Ramirez, refers to it as the “best kept secret in Texas”.

“Week four is when they’re starting to hear the yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir from our kids,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez says 64% of youth who enter the program will complete it.

“What I can tell you is that our program works. We have had a lot of youth come to this program that have had prior instances of violence, acting out, being disruptive in school, and they come to this program, and they’ve been very successful,” Ramirez said.

PFC Crane is more than halfway there.

“I want to make my dad proud, and I want to make myself proud. I don’t want to be somebody who is doing drugs and skipping school, doing all that isn’t the person I want to be. So, this gives me the opportunity to regain some of the things I lost. I’ve already committed to not using any drugs when I go back (to school),” Crane said.

The ChalleNGe Academy is a tuition-free program that is paid for through state legislature and is also matched by federal funds. To be eligible, applicants must be a Texas resident between the ages of 16 to 18 and cannot have, or be accused of, a felony.

The program typically takes up to 150 cadets per cycle. Director Ramirez says he would like to see enrollment grow to 300 youth. But that would require new buildings and upgrades.

Representative Toth says if HB 34 passes, he will also work to secure the funding necessary to expand the program.

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