Ghosts of Truancy Laws Past

This school year, for the first time in 20 years, Texas students won’t face criminal penalties for missing school. Texas is one of just two states in the country to handle truancy cases in criminal court, and in 2013 alone the state generated nearly 200,000 criminal cases against truant children and their parents.

But come September, “failure to attend school” will no longer be a crime in Texas, and courts will have to expunge criminal truancy charges from the students’ records. Instead of a criminal record, under a law passed earlier this year, students who miss too many days of school will instead get a “behavior improvement plan,” followed by an assortment of disciplinary options that don’t include criminal charges (but could include civil fines).

It’s a major change to the way schools and courts operate, and officials across the state are still grappling with all the changes they’ll need to make. Every school district must have a truancy prevention plan. Speaking with the Texas Tribune this month, Ryan Kellus Turner with the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center suggested that the law, which he called “a serious paradigm shift,” could mean greater accountability for parents, who could still be charged with a misdemeanor if their children miss too much school.

Truancy reformers hope that, for students, the change will cut off a major tributary of the school-to-prison pipeline. The Austin advocacy group Texas Appleseed has lobbied for years to decriminalize truancy, and gave the effort fresh momentum this spring with a widely cited study that detailed the disproportionate use of truancy charges against black and Hispanic students, as well as the lack of due process in specialized truancy courts. This school year, Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler said, her group will be watching how schools adjust to the new law, and whether it prompts the shift in disciplinary culture that lawmakers intended.

Fowler said she’s also particularly interested in how quickly courts scrub truancy charges from students’ records. “Every day that criminal conviction stays on a kid’s record is a day that the kid is potentially disadvantaged by it,” she said.

While Fowler and her team survey this new landscape, they’re also seeking justice for wrongs committed under the old system. Days before this year’s reform law passed, Texas Appleseed joined other groups in a complaint against the state and 13 school districts where they said students with disabilities were threatened with criminal charges in truancy court and forced to drop out of school.

It’s one of a few battles sparked by the old truancy system that will continue well into the new era.

In March, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a civil rights investigation into Dallas County’s truancy courts, which prosecuted 20,000 cases last year. The DOJ is focusing on whether students—particularly children with disabilities—were given due process. DOJ spokeswoman Dena Iverson said the investigation is ongoing and that federal investigators will be reviewing how the new law is implemented in Dallas County.

Attorneys who filed a civil suit against Fort Bend County and its schools in May said they’re pressing on as well. The complaint on behalf of Fort Bend ISD parent Verakisha Roach and her son centers on the district’s automated referral system, claiming it doesn’t distinguish between playing hooky and legitimate absences. Fort Bend and Dallas are home to the state’s two dedicated truancy courts, which generated a large share of Texas’ criminal truancy cases in recent years.

Susan Soto, one of the lawyers behind the suit, said the coming reforms can’t undo the harm inflicted in the eight years since Fort Bend began its automatic referrals, and it’s too soon to tell whether the district will make meaningful changes this fall. She said she and the other pro bono attorneys on the case have plenty of thoughts on how the district ought to handle truancy in the future, if anyone at the school wants to hear them.

“We would be more than happy to be a part of that planning process,” she said, “but nobody’s asked us yet.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Ryan Kellus Turner as Ryan Kellus.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

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Published at 4:54 pm CST