Texas Leads the Nation in Prosecuting Children for Truancy

texastruancy-AP Photo-Christian Rodriguez
AP Photo/Christian Rodriguez

Today, Texas is only one of two states that still criminalizes truancy. Texas prosecutes children for truancy at more than double the rate of all forty-nine other states combined. Schoolchildren are prosecuted, punished and fined for cutting classes and missing school. Their futures are often jeopardized by criminal records over their unlawful absenteeism.

Numerous watchdog groups have examined this practice and the latest report from Texas Appleseed says that more than 100,000 Texas kids were ticketed just last year.  Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy highlights the alarming rate at which Texas prosecutes children for truancy – double the rate of all 49 other states, according to the Austin American Statesman.

Mary Mergler, Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project director, told the Austin-based news outlet, “Texas is sending a staggering number of cases to court a year.”

That it is — over 115,000 student cases were sent to adult criminal courts, the report showed. Only about 1,000 truancy cases were handled in Texas juvenile courts that year. Fewer than 50,000 of truancy cases were filed in the juvenile courts of all other states combined.

Truancy is part of the what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline” because it criminalizes student behavior and sets youngsters on a dubious path.

“In general, we use the term ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ to describe the policies and practices that push kids out of school and increase the likelihood of a number of negative consequences, including contact with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems,” according to Texas Appleseed School-to-Prison Pipeline Project Staff Attorney Morgan Craven, who spoke with Breitbart Texas about the non-profit advocacy group’s latest findings.

“That push-out comes in two major forms,” she stated. First, exclusionary discipline practices like suspension and expulsion.  And second, the criminalization of student behavior, leading to increased arrests, police interactions, and court contact.  Truancy falls into that second form because our current law sends thousands of kids to adult criminal courts.”

Craven also cautioned that truancy only increases the likelihood that children will have court contacts early. These cases are sent to justice and municipal courts, which are adult criminal courts.

“The charge is a Class C misdemeanor, called Failure to Attend School.  It is clear that court contact is linked to a number of negative outcomes, including dropout, grade retention and future contact with the juvenile and adult justice systems.  Further, the punitive nature of the current approach to truancy saddles families with fines, criminal records, and stress that makes continued school engagement unlikely,” Craven added.

Truancy is defined as an unexcused absence for 10 or more days or parts of days in a six-month period. It can also be considered an unexcused absence for three or more days or parts of days in a four week period, as defined by Chapter 25 of the Texas Education Code (TEC).Failure to Attend School also carries a $500 fine. It is a conviction that can remain on the minor’s records and can land parents or legal guardians with a Contributing to Non-attendance violation of the TEC or the Family Code.

Breitbart Texas reported that a Class C Misdemeanor is the lowest on the chain of criminal offenses, on par with a traffic ticket. Like deferred adjudication for speeding, there are expunctions and dismissals for truancy. A $30 filing fee and legal procedure that “essentially erases the legal effects of a criminal conviction,” according to the state Truancy Guide.

However, four out of the five youngsters charged with truancy violations are classified as economically disadvantaged by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in the report. They cannot afford the fines and do not pay them, which may result in arrest and jail time once those minors turn 17 years-old. This often leaves a permanent record that, if not sealed or restricted, is unprotected and can be seen by prospective colleges and employers.

These days “college and career ready” applications no longer ask if one has been convicted of a crime, they ask if one has ever been charged with a crime other than a traffic offense.

The report criticizes existing punitive measures in place. They do not fix attendance problems but rather “push them out of school entirely.” Among those thousands of dropouts annually impacted by truancy are special education students. Texas Appleseed would like to see attendance laws designed “to encourage students to regularly attend school” and so that “courts cannot order students charged with truancy to unenroll from school and take the GED.”

The study also suggested that truancy cases are better suited for juvenile court. As Craven noted, school districts file the vast majority of cases in justice of the peace or municipal courts, which handle adult crimes and are geared toward punishment instead of rehabilitation.

Last year, Breitbart Texas pointed out that truancy was a concern to homeschool families who have often worried about a visit from the truant officer. Similarly, parents who need to pull a child out of public school for more than the presently allowable period and who cannot get school approval to do so are equally concerned over truancy laws.

Texas Appleseed would like to see the elimination of the law that requires schools to file a truancy complaint against a student after three unexcused absences in a four-week period or 10 in a six-month period and instead support school officials with those intervention efforts that work.

Among their many recommendations, the report asks the legislature to downgrade truancy to “Child in Need of Supervision (CINS), an offense that would eliminate the associated existing fines and criminal convictions; address root causes of truancy through intervention programs instead of those other current practices that also are not solving the attendance problem (i.e., detention, confinement, in-school and out-of-school suspensions).

The report cautions that court should be a last resort.

Some, like Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, defend the practice of prosecuting children for truancy. “The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate,” said Jenkins, according to a report in ProPublica.  He added that the courts are staffed by attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice issues, and make use of agencies who work to solve the underlying issues behind the truancy of students.

It appears; however, that Dallas County has turned the prosecution of child truants into a big business with more than $3 millions in fines being collected in truancy courts. The Dallas courts put 110 students in jail or juvenile detention for truancy violations.

In 2013, Senate bills 393 and 1114 addressed certain Class C misdemeanors, greatly reducing the number of perceived infractions for which Texas schoolchildren were ticketed and prosecuted in adult court including disrupting class, chewing gum, fighting or even cursing and being disrespectful to the teacher. These were replaced with community service, tutoring or at-risk prevention programs. However, truancy remained.

Like Texas Appleseed, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has also weighed in on the societal downsides of criminalizing even minor behaviors including truancy and running away. Their 2014 report Kids Doing Time for What’s Not a Crime: The Over-Incarceration of Status Offenders stated, “Incarcerating or otherwise removing these youth from their homes increases the likelihood that they will be converted from today’s status offenders to tomorrow’s serious offenders, instead of being shepherded toward productive lives as young adults.”

TPPF also cautioned, “Research shows that status offenders, as a result of being exposed to seriously delinquent youth in close quarters, are in jeopardy of developing the more deviant attitudes and behaviors of higher-risk youth, such as anti-social perspectives and gang affiliation.”

The criminalization of childhood and teenaged behavior, in general, is not working out well for Texas minors. Even Texas Justice Nathan Hecht asked the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state’s courts, to decriminalize the failure to attend school. He commented, “Playing hooky is bad but is it criminal?”

The opportunity to answer that question rests on the shoulders of the 84th Legislative session. Craven told Breitbart Texas that Texas Appleseed is “very optimistic about legislative changes this session regarding truancy.  There is a lot of energy and momentum around changing the law.  There are about 18 bills filed right now related to truancy in some way.  They will be heard in committees in the coming weeks and we are very hopeful for a positive outcome.”

Bob Price contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter @BobPriceBBTX and on Facebook.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.


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