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photograph by ‘ R CI\( Why is Texas prosecuting adults for dropping out? N THE FALL OF 2007, LADARRIUS GUNN’S SENIOR YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL started fine. A lightning-fast cornerback and kick returner, Gunn starred at Paris High and had committed to play for Southern Methodist University. Then a nasty knee injury at the homecoming game ended his football career. His future in doubt, Gunn lost interest in school. Soon enough, the school seemed to lose interest in him. He began skipping class and was sent to in-school suspension. “Before he got injured, they treated him like a king,” says Gunn’s mother, Teresa King. “He got away with a lot of stuff. But afterwards they started treating him like he wasn’t anything.” By February 2008, Gunn was missing whole days of school. The school referred him to a justice of the peace for truancy. Gunn was surprised to learn that he could be prosecuted for dropping out. After all, he was 18 years old. But Justice of the Peace Cindy Ruthart ordered him to pay a $250 fine and attend Saturday school for eight weeks. Gunn wanted to finish high schooljust not in Paris. That March, he withdrew from Paris High and transferred to a high school in Missouri, where his girlfriend lived. Gunn earned his diploma and eventually made his way back to Texas. Nine months later, in February 2009, Gunn was arrested on a warrant that Ruthart issued for failure to pay his $250 fine. Though Gunn was 19 and a high school graduate, Ruthart ordered him to “pay or “I didn’t think it was fair because I had already graduated high school,” Gunn says. GUNN’S CASE may be unusual in its details, but it turns out that Texans between 18 and 21 are now subject to truancy laws previously reserved for juveniles. The change came in 2007, when the Texas Legislaturewith little fanfare and almost no debaterewrote a portion of the state’s Education Code at the behest of administrators and judges, who argued they needed a way to deal with the onethird of high school dropouts who are adults. Legislators passed a law requiring people who enroll in or attend school after their 18th birthday to stay for the entire year or face criminal penalties. Punishment can include jail time, fines and one-year suspensions of driver licenses. No other state has such a law, according to several national truancy experts. Technically, the Legislature left it up to local school boards whether to adopt the policy. So far, almost 900 of the state’s 1,030 districts have opted in. The state does not collect information on truant ages, so it’s impossible to know how many adult Texans have been charged. But the number of truancy cases has risen sharply across the state in recent years. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of “failure to attend school” charges filed by schools increased more than 40 percent, from about 85,000 to 120,000. In Paris, prosecution of adults like Gunn has become an issue thanks to local civil-rights activists, who have long contended that Paris school authorities punish black children more harshly and frequently than white students. Paris received national attention in 2007 when the Chicago Tribune highlighted the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old girl sentenced to the Texas Youth Commission for up to seven years for pushing a teacher’s aide. A 14-year-old white girl in Paris convicted of arson received probation from the same judge. Brenda Cherry, co-founder of the local Concerned Citizens for Racial Equality, suspected that truancy enforcement in Paris similarly fell harder on blacks. She and THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17