The Failure to Attend School, or “truancy” would no longer be a criminal offense under a historic bill that passed both chambers of the Texas Legislature on Saturday, May 30.
Currently, Texas remains only one of two states to continue prosecuting minors for truancy. It is currently a Class C misdemeanor for which schoolchildren are prosecuted, punished and fined for cutting classes and missing school. Their futures are often jeopardized by criminal records over unlawful absenteeism.
The legislation that was passed, House Bill 2398, will decriminalize truancy after being signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott. It was authored by Rep. James White (R-Woodville) and replaces existing criminal prosecution with civil punishments. It also requires schools to take common-sense steps to address students’ truancy problems before referring students to court. Under this bill, they would look at the underlying issues behind truancy — like homelessness, chronic illness or unidentified special education needs.
When efforts to remediate a truancy situation fail, a school could still refer a student to court but it would be to a civil rather than a criminal court. Justice and municipal courts would continue to hear these truancy cases and could order students to counseling or tutoring, but would not be allowed to fine them, nor would students leave court with a criminal record.
“We celebrate this monumental victory for Texas children and families across our state,” said Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler in a statement. “This bill makes great strides towards keeping students who are struggling with school attendance in school and on track to graduate.”
Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest justice center, has been in the trenches of the truancy decriminalization battle. Added Fowler, “We are so pleased that the legislature has acted to stop funneling thousands upon thousands of children into the school-to-prison pipeline and to instead follow best practices to encourage school attendance.”
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to those zero tolerance school policies that lead to students being put into contact with the criminal justice system while still minors. It creates a damaging paper trail that, if not sealed and expunged, can wreak havoc on a youth’s future college and career prospects, which Breitbart Texas has reported.
Fowler praised the passionate leadership of White, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), and Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), among others, as well as the thoughtful direction provided by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and the Texas Judicial Council.
The nods to Whitmire (SB 106) and Huberty (HB 1490) were because they authored other prospective truancy reform legislation that hit the House and Senate floors this session but did not garner requisite broad, legislative support.
However, widespread support for Texas truancy law reform won out and, in the final hours, HB 2398 was the bill to rise to the forefront legislatively. It also nabbed support of the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), the Texas Association of Business, the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas, Texas Justices of the Peace & Constables Association, and the Texas PTA.
About his legislation, White said that the Texas Education Agency will come up with better ways and minimum standards to “assist our school districts in enhancing school attendance,” according to KTXS-12.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan conservative research organization, also has been instrumental in truancy reform. Following the passage of HB 2398, Derek Cohen, policy analyst for their Center for Effective Justice, told Breitbart Texas by email, “We were elated to see Representative White and Senator Whitmire’s HB 2398 clear both chambers and head to Governor Abbott’s desk for signing.”
He added, “This illustrates how Texas lawmakers of all political stripes realize that the capacity of the justice system is best employed against those who would harm society rather than children playing hooky. Further, this bill arms schools with more tools to prevent truancy, rather than simply removing all ability to enforce standards. This bill does right by Texas taxpayers and their children.”
Last year, nearly 100,000 Class C Misdemeanors were doled out to Texas K-12 students and their parents for the Failure to Attend School. In 2013, there were 115,000 citations, according to Class, Not Court. This Spring, the US Department of Justice stepped in to investigate the practices of the Dallas County Truancy Court and Juvenile District Courts as a result of several advocacy groups filing a complaint two years ago. Texas Appleseed was one them.
In early May, Breitbart Texas reported that a class action lawsuit was filed against the Fort Bend County Truancy Court, alleging its Failure to Attend School citation practices were illegal under Texas law. The Fort Bend County Truancy Court has been criticized for having some of the harshest truancy policies in the state.
HB 2398 will end truancy as a criminal offense. This bill now goes to Governor Abbott for his signature. If the Governor signs the bill before the June 21 deadline, it will become law.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.