Texas truancy law challenged
A Texas law that forces students who have missed an excessive amount of school to go to court and sometimes jail has been challenged as unconstitutional by a coalition of advocacy groups for young people and the disabled.
In Dallas County, four districts participate in a specialized truancy court system created in 2003. By law, students in the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, or Richardson ISDs who miss 10 or more unexcused days, or parts of days, within a six-month period will be reported to court. Schools also file truancy charges against students who’ve missed three or more unexcused days within a four-week period.
Texas adult courts saw about 113,000 truancy cases against children ages 12 through 17 in 2012—more than double the number of truancy cases prosecuted in the other 49 states combined, according to the National Center for Youth Law, which joined Texas Appleseed and Disability Right Texas in filing the complaint in June.
Wyoming and Texas are the only two states that try truancy cases against minors in adult court. And Texas is the sole state with a separate truancy court system. All other states hear these cases in juvenile court, where the information is confidential and can’t go on a permanent record. Dallas County operates the largest truancy court system in Texas: in 2012, it collected $2.9 million in fines.
“Kids who are good students are being caught up in this system because it’s so rigid and aggressive,” says Michael Harris, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “We want to see the students who have legitimate excuses for not being in school completely removed from the truancy court system.”
The volume of students sent to truancy court has increased over the years, and minority and underprivileged students face this punishment more often than others, Harris says. In court, students do not have access to an attorney and have little understanding of their rights, he adds.
The punishment for truancy is usually a fine of up to $500, plus $80 for court costs, the complaint states. If a student or their family is unable to pay, they can be sentenced to jail for contempt.
Each of the four districts named in the complaint has broad policies for attendance and truancy. And individual schools can make their own rules in terms of how long a parent has to provide an excuse for an absence, and what form that excuse must be in—for example, a call to the school, a handwritten note, or an email. Further, teachers have the power to create their own policies, and sometimes mark late students as absent.
Administrators should unify school policies districtwide to help parents and students avoid undeserved truancy charges, Harris says.
The Mesquite ISD attempts to help students before they end up in court. Administrators may visit students’ homes, call their families or provide mentoring, says Superintendent Linda Henrie.
“Our goal is to help students understand the value of education and what education can do for them,” Henrie says. “We want them to go to school to reap these benefits. However, we must comply with state law, and state law is specific.”