Late to Class? Off to Court!

Texas’ law on truancy and tardiness is the harshest in the country.
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Posted January 22, 2014 by PETER GORMAN in News
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When high school sophomore Brandon Jefferson’s parents split up and his mother’s rheumatoid arthritis worsened to the point that she couldn’t get out of bed, Brandon took on the job of getting his two younger brothers to school. That chore often made him late getting to his own classes at Lakeview Centennial High School in Garland and later at North Mesquite High School and Mesquite Academy, both in the Mesquite school district. No big deal, right? Just explain that you were doing what you had to for your family, and that would be that.

Not in Texas. Instead of being applauded for stepping up, Brandon soon found himself at one of five special truancy courts set up in Dallas County. For his first offense, he was forgiven, but during his junior year he had to continue to help with his brothers and racked up five more appearances at the court for being late to school, each one representing 10 late days — and fines totaling $2,400. He ended up with five Class C misdemeanor convictions on his record, was sentenced to community service, and had his driver’s license suspended. Losing the license meant losing his fast food job, and without his job he had no way to pay his fines. His mother, living on about $700 disability monthly, couldn’t help much, nor could his father.

Carrillo: “To be honest, truancy criminalizes poverty.” Lee Chastain

Carrillo: “To be honest, truancy criminalizes poverty.” Lee Chastain

After he graduated last June, Brandon tried to join the military, but the unpaid fines and misdemeanors meant the Navy wouldn’t take him. He went back to court, and the judge agreed to reduce his total fines to $1,700, which he and his mother proposed to pay in $50 monthly increments. The judge refused, insisting on at least $300 monthly payments. Brandon volunteered to work it off by doing more community service. Again the judge refused.

Brandon’s case might sound like something out of Kafka, but in Texas it’s run of the mill. In 2012, more than 110,000 Texas school kids between the ages of 12 and 17 were sent to court for truancy — just about double the total number of truancy cases filed in all other states combined, according to the National Center for Youth Law. Fines can run up to $500 per conviction, plus court costs, and each conviction carries an automatic Class C misdemeanor.

If that sounds severe, consider the fact that in Texas a student doesn’t have to skip school to be declared truant –– like Brandon, he or she can run afoul of the laws simply for being late to class. Ten late-to-school appearances — like Brandon racked up — in a six-month period can draw a court subpoena. In some districts, a student can get to school on time in the morning and get tagged for being tardy to a specific class –– and that counts toward the 10 as well.

In those districts, a teacher’s discretion is wide. “Some teachers will mark a child late even if they’re in the class when the bell rings but they’re not yet in their seats,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public-interest law center that promotes social and economic justice.

The lack of leeway in the system is sometimes mind-boggling. Disabled students end up in court when the bus doesn’t stop to pick them up. Members of sports teams get charged with misdemeanors because an out-of-control system marks their absences for school-sanctioned trips and events as truancy. In many cases, there appears to be no connection among school officials who know what is going on with students, those who file the charges, and common sense.

The Fort Worth school district did not return phone calls or e-mails asking for information on its handling of truancy cases. But a 2013 report by Texas Appleseed showed that for school year 2010-2011, Fort Worth charged 1,744 students with “failure to attend school” infractions, out of a student body of about 81,500.

Harris: “Does the policy achieve the goals it was intended to achieve? No.” Courtesy Michael Harris

Harris: “Does the policy achieve the goals it was intended to achieve? No.” Courtesy Michael Harris

That figure pales in comparison to Dallas’ 23,000 truancy cases for the same year and 36,000 for the following year. But Fort Worth’s numbers are still too high for the Rev. Kyev Tatum, director of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“There’s an old adage that says if you see a fish go belly up in a lake, you try to find out what was wrong with the fish,” he said. “You see a thousand fish go belly up in a lake, and you better take a look at the lake. And that’s what we have here. If we have nearly 2,000 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 not wanting to go to school to the point where they wind up in court, well, the district ought to look at why they don’t want to go to school. That would be a lot better than punishing those kids and their parents.”

Ultimately, what those court appearances mean is that most of those kids will carry the weight of their misdemeanor criminal records with them forever, a weight that can cost them admission to college, a career in the military, and entry to many jobs.

In addition, for a lot of those youngsters, a parent’s inability to pay the fine and court costs will ultimately lead to the student dropping out of school. And in Texas, where 80 percent of all the adults in prison are high school drop-outs, that is not a good thing.

Some educators and judges feel that requiring a parent to show up at court and pay a steep fine is a harsh lesson that encourages students to get on the right track and get to school. People like Fowler, state senators John Whitmire and Royce West, and a host of student advocates see it as a system that punishes the poor and disabled disproportionally. Still others see it as a way to eliminate unwanted kids from school by pushing them to drop out.

In Dallas County, the situation is troublesome enough that Texas Appleseed and two other advocacy groups in June filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging the Dallas truancy courts and the four school districts whose cases feed those courts with violation of the students’ civil rights.

Ironically, while most of the truancy prosecutions are a result of lateness, Texas Education Agency guidelines say that, in defining “failure to attend school” — truancy — being tardy should not count.

“That’s often ignored,” Fowler said.

It’s also trumped by the state law that does count 10 instances of tardiness in six months the same as an instance of truancy. The TEA guidelines give schools a way to avoid sending kids to court. Unfortunately, it appears that the loophole created by the guidelines is used mostly by more affluent school districts.

 

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15 Comments


  1.  

    The scenarios I see in this article are certainly believable. The zero tolerance policy proponents have once again allowed a ridiculously out of control system to flourish. There will no doubt be extenuating circumstances from time to time, and if this system continues unchecked, it will harm many innocents. How better to foster anger against the system and rebellious, angry children. If sensible changes to this type of system are not implemented, it can only lead to a totally dysfunctional public education system in general. Get back to a system of punishing intentionally serious infractions as opposed to any infraction for any reason.




  2.  
    jeff.prince

    Good story Peter.




  3.  

    Thanks for this story, which clears up a question for me. 1,744 kids in truancy court is too many. My own grandson was hauled into court a few years ago by the district for truancy. The problem wasn’t truancy–it was the attendance clerk who refused to accept a legitimate note from the his mother explaining that he was sick.

    The city of Fort Worth’s attorney issued a statement last fall that FWISD had failed to file the required documents with them. Despite being a school board member, the district refused to provide the information I asked for regarding this and I still don’t know whether we are in violation of the new law–Superintendent Dansby told me it “wasn’t a problem” in our district.

    Evidently he and I have different definitions of what a problem is.




  4.  
    Disappointed

    As an educator with FWISD I would like to know why the FORT WORTH Weekly just gave Dansby, Needham & Co. a “pass” simply because they “…did not return phone calls or e-mail…” Instead, though well written, the FORT WORTH Weekly spent virtually the entire story trashing Dallas ISD and neighboring school districts. Why? At least their problem is exposed – not covered up and denied. It’s not for lack of facts or material; Betty Brink wrote COUNTLESS stories exposing the fraudulent reporting of attendance, phony graduations, disparate treatment of minority and less affluent students, cooked books as well as the brutal repression of FWISD administrators and teachers who dared report same. Anyone remember the Arlington Heights story? http://www.fwweekly.com/2010/08/11/powder-keg-at-arlington-heights-high/ Remember that opening quote? Yet five years after Palazzolo and the AHHS Teachers came forward – nothing has been done. Over a million dollars in legal fees have been spent to “make him pay” (and that’s just one case of several), yet the bad behavior he reported has not changed. Alexander never lost her Administrator’s certification; Cormier is still an employee. Five years after Palazzolo was fired – not once but twice – and several of his witnesses threatened with termination or arrest (others simply resigned or left FWISD in disgust) – NOTHING. Years after TEA ordered FWISD to implement a TEA-approved attendance plan; fined the district for falsifying attendance (district wide) and an internal audit found the Board turned a blind eye to their own policies while ignoring the corruption which has continued under Walter Dansby – NOTHING has changed. Instead, FWISD is still throwing away tax dollars by bloating the bureaucracy, selectively awarding raises, promoting the incompetent, covering up crimes against children and employees which surrounding districts routinely report to the press. But as I read this story, the misdirection only got worse.
    “Some teachers will mark a child late even if they’re in the class when the bell rings but they’re not yet in their seats,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public-interest law center that promotes social and economic justice.”
    As an educator, this uninformed comment sickens me. In all my years as an educator I have not known one teacher who has ever done this. Leave it to a Chicago attorney with no classroom experience to paint all teachers as tyrants. Again I refer you to the numerous Betty Brink stories.
    “According to the staffers and to documents obtained by Fort Worth Weekly, the top school officials cleared hundreds of unexcused absences from attendance records this year, as part of a campaign to lower Arlington Heights’ dropout statistics and keep the school from again being declared “unacceptable” in the state’s critical academic ranking. For some students, making up lost credits was as easy as picking up a dust cloth. Others were allowed to wipe out failure by spending a few hours in front of a computer screen. But many other absences, the staffers said, were made to disappear by administrators who simply altered the records.” Obviously this was not about being in their seats or for the kids – it was to look good. Obvious too, Ms. Fowler clearly did not do her homework on FWISD. And where has Texas Appleseed been for the past five years? Nowhere to be found.
    I might also say the same thing about Mr. Carrillo. Where in the hell have you been the past five years? What have you done to improve the lot of Hispanic children in FWISD? The answer: NOTHING. Have you even seen the Facebook page, “Fort Worth Fights? http://www.fwweekly.com/2014/01/20/fort-worth-school-fights-facebook-page/ We have called on politicians at all levels to help clean up FWISD – to include at least one popular female candidate for Governor – without response. We need action not more empty promises. And as Pastor Tatum and Ann Sutherland have said, the REAL numbers are too high and FWISD DOES have a problem. It starts with Judy Needham, Walter Dansby and the Board. Maybe a public trial is the only way.




  5.  
    Disappointed

    Sad to day, the Weekly is censoring comments again. After over 12 hours “awaiting moderation” my comment disappeared. Following the lead of the Star Telegram.




  6.  
    Spike

    I don’t understand why the Weekly has to censor its comments! I remember a wise old woman who said, “The Weekly would NEVER censor”. She is gone now…rolling in her grave at what this paper has become! I’ve noticed that the “censoring” is probably only on articles that have to do with the Fort Worth ISD. One has to only believe that when certain board members have something to say, it gets posted! Aside from that, our freedom of speech is scrutinized. I’m not surprised the district didn’t have a comment on this article. It’s just one more thing that finds its way into the abyss that is known as Fort Worth politics.




  7.  
    Disappointed

    In abbreviated form I wish to express my disappointment in giving FWISD a “pass” simply because they chose not to comment. Every Betty Brink article on FWISD exposed the problems with the integrity of FWISD records, deeds, and the failure to follow not only their own policy but the law – even when given direction by the Commissioner of Education. Fort Worth does not need to be trashing DISD or any other district until we clean house on our own ISD Board and administration. We have a made a good start with three new Board Members. We need to continue that trend. As an educator I am offended by and take issue with the characterization of Texas teachers by Texas Appleseed. Even a Chicago attorney with no time in the classroom should know that administrators enforce policy and law on campus. Where has Texas Appleseed been for the past 5 years? Surely not helping anyone improve the situation in FWISD. They should have read Betty Brink.




  8.  
    Purveyor of truth

    I agree 100% with ‘Disappointed’! FWISD DOES have a problem; the only problem is that the media outlets refuse to report about it! The district and some of its rotted board members have lined many pockets to ensure that nothing negative is reported to make them look bad. I just heard on Ch 5 that DISD conducted an investigation for 6 months into allegations that a top recruit student graduated from Kimbell HS, by having his physics grade changed in order to meet the requirements of the NCAA recruiting criteria! The news reporter also stated that they are discovering that there are more schools in the district that have “credit recovery programs” for seniors that don’t have enough credits to graduate. Oh my, and this very same thing was discovered at AHHS, which Palazzolo and teachers report, yet NO ONE reported it in the news! The only paper to report it was The Weekly and the only reporter brazen enough to report it was Betty Brink. The state actually fined FWISD for attendance fraudulence at AHHS…no one reported it!!!??? Let’s see how deep the story gets at DISD and if someone demands that FWISD come clean with its problem of ongoing attendance issues, credit recovery, etc! I’m with ‘Disappointed’, in terms of allowing FWISD to just say “no comment”, b/c they know they are hiding many things about attendance and then some! Let’s see if you, Mr. Gorman or Eric Griffey, write about Palazzolo’s trial March 18; a trial that should’ve been settled 4 yrs ago, but has continued at the hands of a previous corrupt lawyer and his relationships with certain equally corrupt board members and superintendent! The public has been lied to, way before the AHHS/Palazzolo fiasco began 2009-2010. However, it is because of that awareness, that so much has surfaced regarding disparities against minorities, embezzlement, bullying, sexual harassment, retaliation, coercion, misuse of power, criminal, and so on! DISD must NOT have the right people working in their communication dept, b/c they are scrutinized time and time again for every little thing. And yet, many of us sit with mind blowing, life altering information that NO ONE reports…all to keep the liars and cheats from being fired or thrown in jail. FWISD has nothing on Atlanta or El Paso…it is deep and more convoluted, involving more power people inside and out of this district. Where have all the organizations been that protect Texans from corrupt entities? Where are the unions, who take our money and only selectively defend, for fear they will lose support from the very district that allows them to represent? Absences and tardy’s are just the tip of a much more sinister and corrupt iceberg! The only hope we have all had for the past 4 yrs is in Joseph Palazzolo and the many teachers, who brought a corrupt principal and cohorts to their knees! Now, we have even more hope that Palazzolo et al will bring this entire district to its knees…March 18…the day for “Shock and Awe”! I have faith that someone, somewhere, will stand up and report it all to the public, so we are rid of all the snakes in the pit once and for all!




    •  
      Recognizer of Delusion

      If you think the school district and board members are paying off news media so that they won’t expose problems to the public, you are a conspiracy theorist to the nth degree and probably quite insane. Get thee to a therapist. The lack of scrutiny by media is more likely due to laziness or short-handed staffs or sheer ineptitude or a combination of all those things.




      •  
        Purveyor of truth

        Delusional: I think you need to “get thee to a therapist”! I can recommend you use the “Therapist to stars”, Bethany, like everyone else apparently does at FWISD! You have no clue what you are talking about! No major news stations have reported anything negative on FWISD, especially about AHHS and the Palazzolo case. All stations; 4, 5, 8, 11, and 33 were contacted and no response! TEA, Mayor Price, Joel Burns, Wendy Davis, Arne Duncan…and even the President’s office has been contacted to investigate FWISD! Nothing has been reported, except through the Weekly, which FWISD often calls “A rag”! As usual,facts and countless articles putting FWISD in a negative light, have been thrown under the proverbial carpet of corruption! Until you know about ALL of the efforts made by myself and others personally, I would SHUT THE HELL UP! Have a nice day!




  9.  
    Observer

    Perhaps you could explain why criminal acts in surrounding school districts are routinely reported in the media while FWISD is never touched. Public disclosure in the upcoming Palazzolo/AHHS trial on March 18 will start the wake up and clean up process. Elections for FWISD School Board are coming. Moss and Jackson (Needham’s trusty sidekick) are both up and need to be thrown out. This is one cause which should truly unite everyone not just those pacified by a Bond issue and promise of a new high school. These people are going to be running it. Join the effort to clean up FWISD! https://www.facebook.com/1voicevoz




  10.  
    Check in on Reality

    This is one of the few cases that I have heard that is legit and should be handled differently but my husband is a truancy officer in FWISD and there are a number of other stories that deserve to be reported. A majority of these kids are late because they simply don’t want to get out of bed and some of the parents don’t care enough to get up themselves to take them on time. There are kids who skip with their boyfriends or girlfriends and that is not the school’s responsibility to monitor. There are so many outside influences that makes these kids not want to go, alcohol, drugs and so forth; that means, parents need to step up more. If you’re late, and there isn’t any sort of emergency or medical excuse, you get written up. I’ve heard that communicating with teachers helps and communicating with the faculty like the assistant principals and principals also helps but those parents who choose to not communicate do so for a reason and its because they know they aren’t doing everything in their power to get those kids to school on time or ensuring their kids are going. My kid had one tardy in between classes, I got in his butt about it because there is no excuse. I found out through the online system set up with his district. I know I have to do my part and these parents need to know that they don’t release responsibility when these kids walk out the door. Also, we can’t sit here and revamp the school system trying to entice these kids to get an education. The reality is that work in the real world isn’t always great, a majority of people aren’t anxious to get to work but it has to be done to pay the bills and provide for our families. Trying to make school fun and everything else these kids want is setting them up for failure when they realize the world ouside of school isn’t like that. Parents have to take responsibility for their kids, if I know I’m not doing everything in my power, I can’t go around blaming everyone else. Suck it up and get it done, we all had to, our kids should have to too.





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