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

“To be honest, truancy criminalizes poverty,” said Hector Carrillo, district director of the Fort Worth chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Some kids are truants because of drugs or just not wanting to go to school, absolutely. But often there is a poverty issue, with both parents needing to work and the kids not having someone to take care of them or kids needing to take care of their siblings and are subsequently late themselves. That leads to truancy charges, which is a criminalization of that kid. And because a lot of those kids do not have the financial resources to either fight the tickets or pay them, at some point those kids are going to pay for them with county jail time. And that’s the beginning of a downward spiral.”

Fowler: “For a lot of kids, you’re marking them forever.” Courtesy Deborah Fowler

Fowler: “For a lot of kids, you’re marking them forever.” Courtesy Deborah Fowler

While Carrillo’s LULAC focus is primarily on the Hispanic population, poor kids of all races, he said, suffer from truancy laws. “This affects poor whites and poor African-Americans and poor everyone,” he said. “It’s just so routine. The judges are affecting the future of a lot of kids, and they probably don’t even realize what they’re doing in the long run.”

Take a kid who’s troubled to begin with, hit him with fines he has no chance of paying, offer him jail time to work off the fine at $50 a night, and “that exacerbates a bad situation,” Carrillo said. “And a lot of those kids find it easier just to drop out, to quit. Being on the street when they’re young and vulnerable is the worst place for them. They can get into all sorts of bad things there.”

For Tatum, levying fines that poor families will not be able to pay is simply another element in what he sees as institutionalized racism that fosters a school-to-prison pipeline. “What causes a kid to give up on school in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades?” Tatum asked. “If a kid is troubled, [he or she] ought to be treated. If there’s a problem, fix it. Don’t punish it. Where are the school counselors in this? Why aren’t they calling the parents after the first few [tardiness notices]? Why isn’t there school intervention? We spend millions of dollars criminalizing our kids and recycling them from the classrooms to the courtrooms, but we are not solving the problem.”

A report released jointly by  the U.S. Department of Education and the  Justice Department in early January, while not primarily addressing truancy, did find institutional racism in the punishment of public school students throughout the country. The paper, “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” dealt in depth with how school discipline, as currently applied, negatively affects poor, minority, and disabled students’ chances of success in school.

Dallas County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins, who runs the truancy court system in Dallas, has a completely different view from Carrillo or Tatum. “Rather than kicking students out [of school], our system sends truant students back,” Jenkins said in a statement. “More than 84 percent of Dallas Independent School District students who attend a truancy court hearing advance to the next level or graduate. Any contact with law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, or our truancy courts should be options of last resort.”

However, the fact that his five truancy courts accounted for better than 20 percent of all truancy cases prosecuted in the United States in 2012 suggests that they are not being used as a last resort in Dallas County.

Neither Jenkins nor anyone in the Dallas school district responded to calls or e-mails asking for more explanation of the school district’s and county’s comparatively huge rate of truancy cases. With about twice as many kids in the 12-to-17 age group as Fort Worth, the Dallas district had more than 10 times the number of truancy cases winding up in court.

 

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“The Dallas system is set up like traffic court,” said Dallas attorney John Vernon, who has begun to do pro bono cases for Texas Appleseed. “It’s just a mill.”

Vernon has completed one case for Texas Appleseed, assisted on a second, and is working on two others. He said that when he showed up for truancy court he was the only attorney there.

“The courtroom was full, and those kids and their parents were being run through like a cattle call,” he said. “Many of the people didn’t speak English, and they just accepted the conviction and paid their fines. They had no idea what was happening.”

In his limited experience, Vernon said, what he’s seen is a system aimed at the poor, minorities, and immigrants.

“They are the ones who will have the most difficult time getting out from under the fines levied,” he said. “Their sole crime is being poor, not having a car that works to get the kids to school. I had one client handcuffed and taken out of school for nonpayment of fines. That seems like overkill if what you’re trying to do is get kids to be in school.”

Defendants are allowed to have a lawyer present at truancy prosecutions, but most are not alerted to that fact either by the schools or by the court. And, Vernon said, they don’t get court-appointed lawyers.

“So let’s say you want to challenge the case,” he said. “First you’ve got to hire a lawyer, and then, if you lose, you have to pay court costs. So which is cheaper? Just paying the fine or taking it to trial? And that’s if you even know you have the right to a trial.”

Vernon: “Their sole crime is being poor, not having a car that works ... .” Courtesy John Vernon

Vernon: “Their sole crime is being poor, not having a car that works … .” Courtesy John Vernon

Vernon said his own kids went to private school so he never encountered the problem, but his brother’s children did. “My brother had two daughters playing on a national traveling volleyball team for their school,” he said. “They weren’t even in the state, but the school still marked them out, unexcused, and they wound up in truancy court. It’s just unbelievable.”

As crazy as that sounds, many school districts in Texas simply pass along information about students who have been late to class or missed school to a district office, which then passes them on to county prosecutors when the magic numbers are reached. Issues like traveling-team absences can easily slip through the cracks, because the people filing the cases have no knowledge of the students’ situations.

The problem, Vernon said, is that there is no allowance for extenuating circumstances. “It’s strict liability,” he said. “It’s like you ran a stop sign. You’re guilty, period, no explanations. If you’re a parent of a kid in public school in Texas, you should have a handbook to explain what you’re getting into. You’re not told you have the right to counsel, but you do. You’re not told you have the right to have those Class C misdemeanors expunged from your record, but you do. You only have a very short window after graduation, but it can be done. But very few people are aware of it. Or very few poor people anyway. And then the disabled kids, they have it the worst.”

He described a case he’s working on that involves a disabled girl who was often not picked up by the school bus. “And that was held against her,” he said. “There was no accommodation for her, and there’s no accommodation for any of the disabled kids or the brothers and sisters of disabled kids. And there has to be.”

Melanie Watson, a longtime advocate for education rights, particularly for the disabled, agreed with Vernon’s assertion. She sees truancy as a way to get rid of kids the schools don’t want — either because the kids are disadvantaged or dealing with disabilities.

“Schools don’t want difficult kids,” she said. “They’re considered a drain on the system. And if you can get that child and his or her parents stuck in truancy court over and over until the fines pile up so that the parents can’t afford them, well, that’s a good way to make those kids quit school.”

Vernon doesn’t believe the court system helps any student. “I don’t think hearing a judge yelling at them will make them want to go to school,” he said. “And when you look at the numbers, I don’t think this has lessened the truancy problem at all. A lot of these families, they’re living on the edge already. Now you lump this on them, and they are buried.”

He sees a huge problem down the road when these kids don’t finish school. “What you’re really doing is sending a message out to kids that they are bad because they are poor,” he said. “What are the repercussions of that?”

 

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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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