Texas Schools Accused of Violating Truancy Reform Law

Two Texas school districts stand accused of violating the state’s 2015 law that decriminalized truancy. Advocacy groups came together and filed complaints, urging education officials to investigate and to shore up guidelines so that all schools follow the rules.

Disability Rights Texas, the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), and Texas Appleseed lodged their grievances against the Mesquite and El Paso school districts this week. They asserted, in complaints filed with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), these districts did not comply with the truancy reform law which went into effect September 1, 2015.

Before HB 2398, Texas was one of two states that still treated truancy, the Failure to Attend School (FTAS), as a criminal offense. The new law replaced prosecution with civil actions. School districts could no longer refer students with three unexcused absences within a four-week period to truancy court.

Breitbart Texas reported HB 2398 addresses the underlying issues behind why students go truant–like homelessness, chronic illness, unidentified special education needs, or other issues–instead of treating it as a crime, a route that nets court fees, fines, convictions, and criminal records that funnel youth down the school-to-prison pipeline.

Today, school administrators must notify parents and/or guardians of FTAS absences and seek common-sense solutions to remedy these issues such as face-to-face parent meetings and truancy prevention or other intervention programs. The truancy court option can still be exercised but the criminal complaint would be filed against the parents and done so as a last resort.

However, the Mesquite ISD grievance alleged a student with a documented medical condition was sent to the truancy court twice for multiple absences. The court dismissed the case both times, but this should not have happened under HB 2398. According to the complaint, the school offered no preventative treatment to accommodate the student and avoid truancy court referrals.

The El Paso ISD complaint reports the district sidestepped the reform and forced a special needs student out of school through the truancy courts and also fining his mother. This high school student had a documented history of chronic illness and medical notes to substantiate 11 absences. Still, administrators pursued truancy charges, even relying on false evidence from a district representative, said Michael Harris, NCYL senior attorney.

“As a result, the student was directed to received homebound educational services and his mother was convicted of a Class C misdemeanor, fined $100, and ordered to take parenting classes,” he commented. “El Paso ISD had the opportunity to work with this student and create an individual plan to address absences, but chose instead to send this student to court.”

One of the criticisms of criminalizing truancy is that it pushes students out of the system. Last year, Breitbart Texas reported on a different complaint filed by Disability Rights Texas, NCYL, and Texas Appleseed. It asserted that 13 school districts violated federal law by using truancy courts to flush special needs students from the system. After investigating, the TEA agreed, although it limited the scope of its probe to those districts where individual students were identified.

Overall, HB 2398 has resulted in a dramatic reduction in truancy court referrals, but some school districts continue to struggle with compliance, said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s executive director. She addressed some pitfalls of implementing the reform law in a press release. She said: “…we still see school districts struggling to make the shift to individualized, school-based prevention and intervention targeting the root of attendance barriers.”

The advocates learned in filing an open records request that Mesquite ISD produced little or no evidence that it implemented HB 2398 or offered remediation services mandated by the new law. Said Fowler: “Districts need robust guidance and technical assistance from TEA — and parents and students need a complaint process in case districts still fail to comply with the new laws.”

Although the Mesquite and El Paso ISD grievances involved special needs students, Fowler told Breitbart Texas by email, “Our concerns related to prevention and intervention extend beyond students with disabilities.” She said, “The Mesquite complaint is really a systemic complaint,” adding, “What is happening – or isn’t happening in Mesquite – is also very much in line with what we are seeing in other parts of the state.”

Fowler also told Breitbart Texas: “We’ve reviewed some of the programs rolled out in other districts, and many of them appear to be the same kind of ‘one size fits all’ approach that simply does not work for kids who really do have attendance issues. And (they) fail to take into account the needs of students like the ones that we included in the complaints that we filed this week.”

In the press release, the advocacy groups asked the TEA for a few fixes, suggesting a requirement that before making a truancy court referral, any student who might have a disability be evaluated for special education services and accommodations. They requested the agency create a committee to determine FTAS causes for existing special ed students, and formulate grievance processes for parents to pursue when districts are out of HB 2398 compliance.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.


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