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.”
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.”