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

Truancy in Texas wasn’t always handled by doling out fines and misdemeanors.

“Truancy fines came into play when the legislature created ‘failure to attend school’ as a Class C offense in 1995,” explained Fowler. The same law mandated that school districts file truancy reports with local prosecutors once a student had been marked late 10 times in six months or had three unexcused absences in a month. Jurisdiction over those cases was assigned to justice of the peace and municipal courts. Before 1995, she said, truancy was handled as a “child in need of supervision” case under the family code. There were no fines.

The law was passed as part of an overall tough-on-crime approach to juvenile cases nationwide, at a time when there seemed to be a rising tide of murders and other violent crime by youths. The theory was that if small offenses like graffiti and vandalism were treated harshly, you would be nipping larger criminal behavior in the bud. Criminalizing truancy was simply an extension of that theory.

Thousands of truancy cases began to be filed. In 2004, more than 83,000 truancy cases were filed in justice of the peace and municipal courts statewide, not including the cases in Dallas County, which had created its own system of truancy courts the previous year.

By 2012 about 36,000 cases were being handled in Dallas County truancy courts, nearly one-third of the state’s total number of cases.

The Dallas truancy courts began as a three-court system that has now grown to five courts. It nearly pays for itself in collected fines — in 2012, $2.9 million in fines were collected while the total court costs were $4 million. There are no statewide figures for truancy fines.

Interestingly, counties are allowed to share the fine revenue with school systems, which some people see as an incentive for prosecutors and school officials to handle the cases this way. It’s unclear how many districts do this –– and neither Dallas County nor the Fort Worth school district would say if they participate in the revenue-sharing. In 2011, the Texas Legislature limited the use of truancy charges in adult courts against children below the age of 12, though those cases can still be filed in juvenile court, where there are no fines and records are generally sealed. Fowler estimated that less than a thousand truancy cases a year are filed in juvenile court.

Two state senators working hard to change truancy law in Texas are Royce West from Dallas and John Whitmire of Houston.

West was the driving force behind the recent abolition of automatic ticketing for junior high and high school students for a host of petty offenses like swearing, talking back to a teacher or wearing too much perfume in class. Whitmire, with West, sponsored a bill in the last session of the legislature that would have limited a first-offense truancy fine to $100, graduating up to $500 for repeat offenses, and called for a truancy facilitator who would have to work with school kids to try to solve their lateness or truancy problem before they could be filed on. That bill passed both the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

West would have liked to see the truancy situation changed along with the ticketed offenses but said it simply wasn’t politically possible. “You try to get done what you can get done,” he said. “Certainly I’ll work on the truancy issue in the next legislative session, but we’ll have to work with our colleagues to figure out exactly what will pass.”

West said Dallas and Harris county school districts fought truancy reform all the way. “There are some legislators and judges with political clout in those counties who don’t want to see that system dismantled,” he said. “But the cost related to drop-outs is on my mind, and that’s why we need to change the laws on this.”

For Whitmire, the issue is close to home, and he is fired up about it. “I ran across this issue about 10 years ago,” he said. “A nurse’s aide was taking care of my mother in a nursing home. Single mother, three kids, two jobs, barely making it. She called and told me that both she and her son had gotten $500 tickets for truancy and she couldn’t afford to pay them. Now this woman was doing everything to get her son ready for school. So I called the justice of the peace and asked him if he would take her situation into consideration. He said he would. So I thought I’d done my job. But then the woman called me two days later to say that she was still responsible for $80 in court costs. Well, I’ve been on a tear ever since and began introducing legislation to change this two sessions ago.”

Like West, Whitmire said that Dallas is the county most resistant to change. “They’ve turned it into a business,” he said. “They’ve built a bureaucracy around truancy, but they have not solved the root cause of truancy.”

In Houston, Whitmire said, they’ve set up a system of truancy case managers. When a truancy citation is filed, the case manager calls the parents to find out what is going on.

“We found out about a 14-year-old who received a citation, and when it was looked into, it was found that she was pregnant and had no maternity clothes and was too embarrassed to go to school,” he said. “So we got her some maternity clothes. We had a young lady last year, a straight-A student, who was being truant. It turned out she was taking care of her siblings. There are so many reasons kids might be late for school or miss school: Are the parents going through a divorce? Is there a mental issue? Is someone sick in the family? I don’t want any person going to court for truancy until the absolute last resort. First I want to find out what the particulars are.”

Whitmire, like others working on this issue, isn’t advocating allowing kids to skip school. But truancy fines and criminalizing students are not the way to do it, he said. Finding out if there is a problem and then fixing it is a much better solution. “I had a lady call me last year whose transmission went out,” he said. “She had no car. And a lot of people don’t know people who are poor and live in those conditions where if a transmission goes out, there is no getting the kids to school. In that case it took $1,400 for a new transmission, and the kids were right back in school.”

Mesquite is one of the four school systems tied into the Dallas truancy court, but its superintendent shares Whitmire’s outlook and as a result files a lot fewer cases than the other three districts. Superintendent Linda Henrie said that one major difference is that “the Mesquite school district has no centralized area to handle truancy. It’s handled at the school level, so parents are dealing with school personnel, people they know.”

That familiarity, she said, allows schools to reach out to families before someone has to go to court. “The key is to find out what is contributing to truancy,” she said. “The barriers to kids getting to school might be illness, poverty, or something else, but once we know what it is, we can try to work with the parents, because our ultimate goal is to make sure those kids are in school. We don’t have a lot of leeway on the standards that are applied statewide, but by working with the parents rather than making it an adversarial relationship, everyone benefits.”

 

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Despite Mesquite’s stance, the district was included in a complaint filed in June with the U.S. Department of Justice challenging Dallas County’s truancy court system and its four participating school districts: Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson. The complaint was filed by Texas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law, and Disability Rights Texas.

The complaint asks the Justice Department to declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children for truancy as adults a violation of their civil and constitutional rights.

“We are concerned about a lot of things,” Fowler said. “We are concerned about students not being represented by attorneys. We’re concerned by the volume of cases in Dallas. We’re concerned that they’re using the fines in part to support the truancy court system. They almost have to have a high volume of cases to continue to fund the courts. And when we first started visiting the truancy courts, we were shocked to see the number of high fines being meted out, shocked to see full courtrooms with a high percentage of minority and disabled children — and so we decided to focus our complaint on Dallas County. But if we prevail, we think it will send a strong message to the rest of the state.”

Michael Harris is a senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law. In his opinion, truancy fines, particularly in Dallas truancy courts, are about raising money.

“The infrastructure has been built up, and people’s jobs and pensions depend on it, and they do not want that court system to go away,” he said. “But imagine if you’re on minimum wage what a fine would do to your finances. And in a place like Dallas, those kids are mostly kids of color and lower income people.

“Does the policy achieve the goals it was intended to achieve?” he continued. “No. It does not reduce truancy.” But it causes all kinds of harm along the way.

Harris pointed to the fact that the four school districts that participate in the special truancy courts “mostly have minority and low-income kids.”

At schools with wealthier kids, he said, administrators simply overlook lateness and absences, “so they’re doing an end run around the state law.”

Fowler said that the number of questions and the amount of information   requested indicate that the Justice Department is taking the complaint seriously. Jeff Monk, a justice of the peace in Johnson County, is a former Marine and narcotics police officer who’s been on the bench for 11 years. During that time he’s gone from being hard-nosed to more compassionate.

“The other day I had 60 kids in my court in Burleson,” he said. “Some of them are there because of drugs or alcohol. Some of them are there because of circumstances beyond their control. And I am not allowed to delve into extenuating circumstances. I have to get the verdict in before I am allowed to ask about the causes for the truancy.”

When he discovers what those circumstances are, he said, he can use those to determine the fine or penalty. “I can suspend the fine,” he said. “We’re not looking to make money in my court. We’re looking to find out why the student isn’t in school and then try to come up with a creative way to encourage that family or that student to get back into school to do what they’re supposed to do — to learn.”

He said that among the 60 kids he saw recently, one young man was accompanied by a woman who wasn’t his mother. His parents had essentially abandoned him, and she was doing her best to take care of him. Those circumstances were taken into account, he said.

Not long ago, he said, he had a kid explain that the reason he wasn’t going to school was because he had no shoes. “I called a recess in the court, took that kid to Payless, and bought him shoes,” he said. “Every student who comes to my court is a person. There are times to be stern and times to be compassionate. In the end, I want that first trip to court to be the last time I ever see those kids in my court. And the only way to do that is to be creative, get those kids who need it to specialized services, get those parents to understand how important it is to have their kids in school. The law is black and white, but when it comes to sentencing, I want to be able to help the people in front of me improve their lives.”

For people like Brandon Jefferson, changing the law to allow for extenuating circumstances would have been considerably better than having a compassionate judge discover those circumstances after the child has been convicted and given several Class C misdemeanors and fines he couldn’t pay.

Still, Brandon was one of the lucky ones. His mother, Pearl, turned to Texas Appleseed, which found a lawyer to take his case pro bono. The lawyer managed to get the $1,700 in fines reduced to $444, and Pearl said that Brandon has gotten his driver’s license back as well.

“He’s 19 now and looking for work,” she said. “He still hasn’t been able to get into the military because of this truancy stuff.”

Fowler was disappointed to hear that Brandon had not gotten into the military — despite good scores on their tests — but not surprised. “These fines and convictions are long past any date of appeal,” she said. “And that’s the problem. You mark these kids, and for a lot of kids you’re marking them forever.”


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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