SPRING, Texas — In a small courtroom north of Houston, a fourth-grader walked up to the bench with his mother. Too short to see the judge, he stood on a stool. He was dressed in a polo shirt and dark slacks on a sweltering summer morning.

“Guilty,” the boy’s mother heard him say.

He had been part of a scuffle on a school bus.

In another generation, he might have received only a scolding from the principal or a period of detention. But get-tough policies in U.S. schools in the past two decades have brought many students into contact with police and courts – part of a trend that some experts call the criminalization of student discipline.

Now, such practices are under scrutiny nationally. Federal officials want to limit punishments that push students from the classroom to courtroom, and a growing number of state and local leaders are raising similar concerns.

In Texas, the specter of harsh discipline has been especially clear.

Here, police issue tickets: Class C misdemeanor citations for offensive language, class disruption, schoolyard fights. Thousands of students land in court, with fines of up to $500. Students with outstanding tickets may be arrested after age 17.

Texas also stands out for opening up millions of student records to a landmark study of discipline, released in July. The study shows that 6 in 10 students were suspended or expelled at least once from seventh grade on. After their first suspension, they were nearly three times as likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system the next year as students with no such disciplinary referrals.

Citing the Texas research, federal officials announced last month an initiative to break what many call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Suspensions, expulsions and arrests are used too often to enforce school order, officials said.

“That is something that clearly has to stop,” U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in Washington alongside Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

This month, Duncan recounted that in his old job as Chicago schools chief, he was stunned to learn that so many arrests occurred in schools. The first response to student misbehavior, he said, “can’t be to pick up the phone and call 911.”

Connecticut officials have begun screening cases after students wound up in court on violations such as having soda, running in the hall and dressing improperly.

“It’s not that we don’t think these things should be handled,” said William Carbone, the state’s executive director of court support services. “We just think they should be handled in the school rather than the court.”

Research shows that students who have been arrested or appeared in court are more likely to drop out of high school, said Gary Sweeten, an Arizona State University criminologist.

Dropouts, in turn, are more likely than graduates to be incarcerated or unemployed.

It is hard to pinpoint the beginning of ticketing in Texas, but advocates say it expanded during the 1990s as many school systems started police forces and as zero-tolerance policies proliferated.

Texas is not alone in school-based ticketing, which occurs in several other states. But in Texas, many question whether ticketing went too far.

In Houston one recent day, a 17-year-old was in court after he and his girlfriend poured milk on each other. “She was mad at me because I broke up with her,” he said.

Student Precilla Sanchez, 15, said most of her friends “have one ticket or more.”

“You got to a point where police were writing tickets for things that were not appropriate,” said Brock Gregg of the Association of Texas Professional Educators. He said the association supports police in schools but wants more emphasis on helping students rather than sending them to court.

But report data from 22 Texas school districts showed ticketing rates that ranged from less than 1 percent of students in Pasadena to 11 percent in Galveston.

“It really defied common sense,” said Deborah Fowler, the report’s lead author, who found tickets issued to students as young as 5.

Parents in Texas complain that tickets are written up too easily and that authorities overlook whether students have disabilities or are acting in self-defense.

Lawyer Yvonne Q. Taylor, who works for a juvenile justice project at Texas Southern University’s Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy, said her experience bears out a finding of the ticketing report: Racial disparities are common.

In Dallas, where 30 percent of students are African American, 62 percent of those ticketed are black, the report said. In the Houston area, Taylor said, “I rarely see a white face in the courtroom.”

One of her recent cases involved Yiovani Williams, the son of a police detective. The 15-year-old said he talked back to an English teacher after she repeatedly said he could not use the restroom. The teacher accused him of cursing, which he denied. He was ticketed for disorderly conduct and suspended for a day.

His parents, Racquel and Willie Williams, said they were stunned such an incident could be considered criminal. Earlier, their older son had been ticketed after a classroom incident.

But ticketing does have supporters.

Ken Knippel, an assistant superintendent of the Aldine Independent School District, with 62,000 students and 39 police officers, said a ticket is one of many responses to an infraction. “Should it be used to modify all behavior? No,” he said.

“Are there times when it is appropriate? Yes, there are.”

Ticketed students can’t just mail in a fine, as drivers could with a traffic ticket. In Texas, they must appear with a parent in an adult court – in a municipal court or before a justice of the peace.

In downtown Houston, Municipal Court Judge David Fraga sees perhaps 150 juvenile ticketing cases a day during the school year, about half of them school-related.

In his court, punishments include community service and behavior-related workshops, and many offenders are able to avoid fines. The idea is, he said, “to learn, to make good choices.”

But others ask: Why are minor offenses here at all?

“It’s oftentimes dumb teenage behavior, which most of us did at one time or another,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.